Reporter arrested by Pima County sheriff's deputies was right where she was supposed to be

A reporter arrested Thursday morning by Pima County sheriff’s deputies was doing her job. Check that, she was arrested for doing her job. Period.

Her credentials were plainly visible as deputies slapped the handcuffs on KJZZ’s Alisa Reznick’s wrists while she covered a Gaza war protest at the University of Arizona Tech Park. Reznick is the Phoenix news radio station’s Tucson correspondent working the “Fronteras Desk.” She also does work for NPR. 

The idea of the demonstration was to impede workers from entering the Southeast Side site in a stand against Raytheon Missile Systems’ involvement in the conflict (what do they think the other missiles are made for? Never mind).

Related: Pima sheriff’s deputies arrest reporter covering protest against Raytheon

Reznick was cited for criminal trespassing. She was taken into custody and later released, along with actual protestors. An instant problem here is the property isn’t technically private. It’s Arizona Board of Regents’ property (meaning it belongs to you and me) and a building there is leased to Raytheon. So the whole thing is still a little foggy, despite what’s been widely reported elsewhere.

Sheriff Chris Nanos said his deputies were left with “very little choice to do something else.” People who believe that should change their date of birth on all official documents to Nov. 30, 2023. Nanos seems to think we were all born yesterday.

Of course deputies have the option. Police practice discretion every day. Deputies are servants of the whole public and not Raytheon’s private security firm. 

The framers of the U.S. Constitution intended Reznick to be there watching the sheriff’s deputies who were also doing their jobs, until they started doing the job of a secret police force in a developing country.

Arresting journalists should be a last resort and only then in certain circumstances, said former Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier. At least he said that was the case when he was sheriff, until losing reelection to Nanos in 2020.

“We would be reticent to arrest any member of the press covering any protest unless they are engaged in criminal activity,” he said of his days in charge.

In fact, there’s a General Order at the sheriff’s department to allow the press reasonable access to crime scenes. Nanos was apparently unaware of that the day of the arrest. 

Taking pictures of deputies arresting protestors is not a criminal activity. 

According a video taken at the scene, Reznick told deputies — who knew she was a reporter doing her job — that she was heading to her car and a deputy can be heard saying “you’ve had plenty of time to get to your car.” Yeah, “Plenty of Time to Get to Your Car” being a famous legal doctrine adjudicated in the classic Supreme Court case Never Happened v. Totally Made Up.

David Bodney, a top-notch 1st Amendment attorney in Tucson, said based on what is publicly known the arrest doesn’t seem reasonable. That’s based on the information he has, and the information is preliminary.

“A journalist not getting into her car fast enough hardly sounds like grounds for an arrest,” Bodney said.

At the same time, journalists aren’t above the law. We can’t throw bricks through windows and then flash our press badge with a mouthful of potato chips we just looted. Well, we can. We’re just rightly going to jail.

On the other hand, journalists covering the protest are not part of the protest and the law recognizes that, Bodney said.

“It’s essential to maintain protections against the pretextual arrests of journalists for doing their jobs,” he said. 

That protection against pretext is huge. Plenty of police are fine with the press doing their job. Most kind treat us with a “whatever.” A few really don’t like the fact that we consider ourselves a check on their authority. It’s not really “our check.” It’s yours. The readers. The viewers. The Internet surfers. 

You can provide the check when provided the information we gather.

The people have the right to protest. I’ve written repeatedly that the MAGAs have a right to protest school boards daring to practice inclusion. Neither the press nor the police get to pre-clear people’s opinions or passions.

Protesters who know what they’re doing expect to be arrested when they block a right of way. It’s why they do it. 

When police are so ceremoniously provoked into making the arrests, the press is correct to be there just to make sure all that should be hunky is, indeed, dory.

Arresting people is a form of state-sanctioned violence. The broader community commissions and pays officers to do that. Organized civilization depends on authorities holding a monopoly on violence and exercising it with professionalism.

At that point it is the job of the media to chronicle how police exercise that awesome power under the law.

The state has the power to compel people to do things that they would not otherwise do. The trick is to make sure the law equally applies to everyone. The free press is required to see that the state does just that.

Napier put it more succinctly: “We empower law enforcement with the most awesome power that a democracy can give and that’s to take your liberty upon your oath.” What he means by upon your oath is interesting. It means that on his word as a law enforcement officer, a member of the public can wind up in custody. “Commensurate with that should come the highest level of accountability,” said the former sheriff, a Republican who last a re-election race to Nanos in 2020.

That’s what Reznick was doing and what she should do tomorrow if she happens on the same situation.

If journalists aren’t there, then power can be abused, said Gabe Rottman, director of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“It is essential that journalists be able to remain on the scene of protest activity to cover both the demonstration and law enforcement’s response to it. Detaining, arresting, or otherwise removing journalists who are doing their jobs deprives the public of on-the-ground reporting that is vital to bringing people the information they need, and there is a danger that laws like trespass can be used as a pretext to shut down public interest newsgathering,” he said.

Don’t chill out

Arrests of reporters can have a chilling effect. On this I have first-hand experience. 

On April 2, 2001 I was on 4th Avenue right after the Arizona Wildcats lost the NCAA basketball championship to the Godless Duke Blue Devils. I was covering the University of Arizona community as it watched the game for the since-departed Tucson Citizen.

I was on Fourth looking for a ride back to my car from a Citizen photographer. 

While waiting some minor hell broke loose and some asshats (out of thousands of harmless drunken young people) set set a couple vehicles on fire up the street from the main crowd. Where were the cops?

Police were busy forming a skirmish line, which soon began to move up the avenue tapping their shields in a unified beat. Then all hell broke loose when the cops opened fire. 

I took two rounds of rubber bullets. The second in the back as I ran and the first as I was explaining that cops don’t shoot someone for no reason. BAM. Yeah they did.

Police later said they didn’t target journalists but they weren’t differentiating, either. So they were firing at anyone and everyone who presented a target. All I was doing was backing up and taking notes about 30 yards from advancing officers.

I wound up in the emergency room concerned I had a broken arm. I did not. I still got a prescription for painkillers I never filled. Chain-smokers shouldn’t go near opioids.

A whole thing ensued during which police did a somewhat public review that discussed what went wrong and what went right. I won’t go into it all.

A few days after the melee, the Citizen’s corporate mothership issued an edict from Gannett headquarters: All journalists are to leave the area as soon as police start acting up.

No. No. That’s wrong in every way.

The press has to be there. I was exactly where the public needed me and so was Reznick. Making reporters hesitate in providing a spotlight on the powerful only empowers them to do things that society really doesn’t want them to do.

I’m not saying that will happen with Reznick’s employer. Michel Marizco is the senior editor for the Fronteras Desk. I remember him from his days at the Arizona Daily Star, and he’s OK giving authority the high middle digit.

He said: “We are continuing to seek clarity from the Sheriff’s Department on the circumstances of this incident where a clearly identified journalist was in the course of reporting the news.”

I hope KJZZ’s ownership shows the gumption Gannett lacked 20 years ago. That sort of corporately cautious aversion to committing honest-to-God journalism sure wouldn’t fly with the Sentinel’s editors.

So says the court

Hell, even the courts say the public has a right to know, and they made that plain right here in Arizona.

In 2022, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill drawing an eight-foot circle around police making an arrest. Anyone inside the circle photographing or recording that arrest was guilty of a crime.

Personally, I don’t know why the press needs to be that close. Maybe make it five feet so the person doesn’t become the news when they get flattened as an arrest goes funky. That would be my take. 

But boy did the courts not agree with my forgiving interpretation. 

U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi ruled the bill violated a “‘clearly established’ right to ‘record law enforcement officers engaged in the exercise of their official duties in public places’ under the First Amendment.”

It happened fast. Real fast. An NBA All-Star Dunk Contest slam fell on the law’s head. 

Mickey Osterreicher helped lead the legal challenge to this bill before it could become law. 

“I’ve never seen a prelimary injunction granted so quickly,” Osterreicher.

The author of the bill, Rep. John Kavanaugh, couldn’t find lawyers willing to take up the appeal and missed the deadline to file. The bill never became a law, struck dead before it ever took effect because not even the attorney general’s office would seek an appeal.

That kind of training is critical, says Mickey Osterreicher, a Washington D.C.-based attorney for the National Press Photographers Association. 

Osterreicher has worked the other side of the law, too. He provided training to police in Minnesota about the legal nature of a free press. Unfortunately, a lot of officers don’t always know the law they are enforcing. If the sheriff doesn’t know his own department’s standing orders, then how can a deputy be expected to know first amendment con law?

Local law enforcement used to include a “media day” in the academy for those seeking to be promoted as sergeants. That included a pretty healthy exchange of views, and taught budding police leaders that reporters are there to just do a job, as independent witnesses. Perhaps that needs a reboot.

“If the police don’t know what the constitutional rights are, it’s not going to make any difference,” Osterreicher said.

‘Most-cops’ not the issue, point

Now, I also have to say that I’ve seen officers do their thing all over Tucson since having this gig and they haven’t known I was a journalist. They didn’t think anyone was watching and taking notes. Their actions were incredibly professional.

This has been especially true of Tucson police. The reason their screw-ups are news is the same reason planes crashing are news and planes landing are not. It’s the exception and not the rule.

It’s also exceedingly rare that local politicos vote contracts to enrich themselves or their family. The vast majority of public officials take their job seriously. When they don’t, it’s news.

None of this is the point. Most people are law-abiding. We still have cops, prosecutors, jails and prisons. 

The professional reporter serves community members by giving them the information we need to police the police.

First principles

The very first amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes that right, in between the freedom of speech and the freedom to peaceably assemble.

No one can wave an American flag and shout “Freedom!” without believing in those three things. The constitutional right may protect the Gannett reporter now assigned to Taylor Freaking Swift but that’s not why it’s there. 

It’s there to make sure the state stays somewhat honest. Someone should give that reminder to the newspaper chain bosses who created a national Taylor Swift beat while running news operations in places like Salinas, Calif., and dozens of other outlets that used to be actual local news publications without any reporters at all on staff. (I’ve been wanting to say that for a while.)

Well, what does the free press mean in this day and age? I am the press because I have a platform. Readers click on my columns and give them a glance. I have an audience. Does the same go for anyone with a Facebook page? Or a Twitter/X/Twix handle? Yep and sí.

Welcome to the 21st century and keep up the good work, Alisa.