Ferguson, the First Amendment, and the Asian American Journalists Association


The spectre of the U.S. Justice Department coming down on the First Amendment rights of reporter James Risen should have been bad enough. (See my blog post on Risen here.)

But as the Asian American Journalists Association convened in Washington, DC this week, the situation in Ferguson, Missouri was degrading further after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of police.

It was like a double shroud over a convention intended to herald journalism and diversity.

And then came the news that two journalists in Ferguson had been detained by police.

The aggressive policing against a young African American like Brown is one very serious matter.

But when police start going after reporters, a prevailing “cowboy law and order” mentality is out of hand.

Reporters Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post tweeted they were told to stop reporting and were taken into custody.

Reilly was told that they were arrested for “not packing their bags quick enough”:

SWAT just invade McDonald’s where I’m working/recharging. Asked for ID when I took photo. — Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 13, 2014

Officers slammed me into a fountain soda machine because I was confused about which door they were asking me to walk out of — Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 14, 2014

Both reporters have now been released.

But I know what it’s like to be detained.


It’s happened to me three times in my career, twice on foreign soil. In the Philippines, I was carrying my video gear from the airport to cover the assassination of Benigno Aquino over 30 years ago. The police stopped and questioned me and also checked my gear. Then they let me go.

The other time was in Hong Kong, where I gave my pocket knife/key chain to a Chinese security guard at a metal detector at a function with Chou En-lai and Bill Clinton. It was pre-9/11, early in 2001. I thought I was being proactive by removing my keys before entering the screening process.

Not so fast.

It was serious enough to make the HK tab, The Standard, which dubbed me the “Knife Journalist.”

I was held in a small room, questioned, and then released.

These incidents made me appreciate my role as a journalist here in the states. That kind of stuff never happens here, right?

Just ask Lowery and Reilly.

Suddenly, there are roadblocks to freedom.

Still, that’s minor when compared to what happened to Michael Brown, who was gunned down. He paid with his life.

I’ve lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and have always known it as a place where segregation has evolved. But not by much.

And when it comes to race and law enforcement, it doesn’t surprise me at all if the cops had a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude.

Your freedoms are robbed when the police officer has a gun and you don’t.


Recently in Kentucky, I nearly was arrested. I was at a rental car facility in Hebron, and a routine visit turned into a major debate.

An incompetent manager wasn’t aware of a special code to make a change in my reservation. But my battle over consumer rights became a civil rights one when he told me to wait.

He then came back with two sets of policemen and their squad cars, ready to do battle.

These were airport cops, but they had guns and badges and were duly deputized to shoot me at their discretion.

I asked them what I had done and if I were under arrest.

They said I wasn’t. But they did want to see my ID.

They could have said “Let me see your papers.” I was brown, but they could tell by my non-accent that I didn’t sneak in over the Ohio border.

The situation was right up to the line. I could see any “false” move I made could be misinterpreted and seen as a threat. Or in their eyes, “disorderly.”

At this point, I was only the uppity Filipino, possibly a Chinese man, or as they would say, an “Oriental.”

It was four versus one. And besides, they had guns. Their interpretation wins.

Of course, I could have refused to give them my ID. But what would that have done? Raise suspicion of my knowledge of freedom and the constitution?

So I handed it over. But I did again ask for clarity: Was I under arrest?

The officer said no.

But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was detained.

After a quick check of my driver’s license, they didn’t arrest me. But they escorted me by publicly-paid taxi—the squad car, where I sat in the back of the cage–to another rental car place.

I wasn’t arrested; I was removed.

So I understand Ferguson. Any person of color especially should understand Ferguson.

Law and order too often likes to take it right up to the line.

Then, any little thing makes the wrong thing happen.

It shouldn’t be that way, as President Obama responded on Thursday.

“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama said.

“There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said in remarks broadcast from Edgartown, Massachusetts, near the location where the president is vacationing.

But he was adamant about the reporters.

“Here in the United States of America,” said the president, “Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people what they see on the ground.”

The president went on to remind us that “We are all part of one American family, we are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law.”

Somehow after Ferguson, it just sounded hollow.

With Risen, the death of Michael Brown, the aftermath in Ferguson, and the militaristic police actions, including the arrests of journalists, is there any question the First Amendment is in more trouble than we imagined?

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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