Early Saturday morning, an investigative reporter for Creative Loafing's sister publication in Nashville, the Scene, was arrested along with 25 Occupy Nashville demonstrators and hauled off to jail. Jonathan Meador, 26, had been covering the protest at Legislative Plaza around midnight when some 60 to 75 Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers gave a 10-minute warning and then moved in and made the arrests. Demonstrators were held on charges ranging from public intoxication to criminal trespass.
Within hours of the arrest, Chris Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Media — owner of the Scene, CL-Charlotte and CL-Tampa, as well as The Pitch, in Kansas City, Mo., and Leo Weekly, in Louisville, Ky. — fired off an email to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's press secretary. "I expect the Governor to publicly apologize to [Meador] for this violation of his rights and to assure the people of Tennessee that this administration will not interfere with the right to a free press..."
On Oct. 27, Haslam's administration imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on several government properties, but the magistrate that heard the cases early Saturday told police he could “find no authority anywhere for anyone to authorize a curfew anywhere on Legislative Plaza,” according to a report in Nashville's daily paper, The Tennessean.
The American Civil Liberties Union says it will challenge the curfew in court as early as Monday morning. "This is sort of a basic, core right to protest," Hedy Weinberg, director of the ACLU's Tennessee chapter, told The Tennessean. “The state cannot change the rules in the middle of the game, which is what’s happening, and the state knows that they cannot change the policy and selectively apply it.”
In the past week, officials in other cities have begun cracking down on the Occupy movement, most notably in Oakland, Calif., where police badly wounded protester and Iraq veteran Scott Olsen in a clash with occupiers there. In New York City, 30 to 40 firefighters descended on Occupy Wall Street's campsite at Zuccotti Park to confiscate the generators and gas canisters that were keeping the occupiers warm. In Charlotte, comments from former Mayor Pat McCrory indicated that he might have imposed restrictions similar to those in Tennessee had he become North Carolina's governor in 2008.
"You can't allow people to take over," McCrory told WBTV on Oct. 19, referring the Occupy Charlotte campsite at the Old City Hall on Trade Street. "You allow them to protest, that's what our Constitution allows, but you can't allow them to occupy."
McCrory may be constitutionally incapable of understanding the "right of the people peaceably to assemble" part of the First Amendment, but city council member Michael Barnes seems to have a pretty good handle on it. Barnes, a member of Charlotte's public safety committee, told WBTV it concerned him "to have political leaders talking about curtailing peoples' Constitutional rights." He said the occupiers have the right to "stay as long as they want. As long as they're not damaging property or violating any local ordinances or other laws, I have no issue with them staying here."
That said, Charlotte city officials are considering an ordinance that could mean the removal of tents at the Occupy Charlotte campsite, according to a Friday story in the Charlotte Observer. Officials claim they're considering the ordinance in anticipation of next year's Democratic National Convention, and that, interestingly, they may "expire" the ordinance after the convention is over. Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx told the Observer that he is more interested in public safety than First Amendment rights during what Democrats are calling the "people's convention." When asked if the city could use the proposed ordinance to evict the Occupy protesters after they've already been allowed to pitch their tents at the Old City Hall grounds for weeks, the mayor commented, "I don't have a legal answer to that question yet."
On a personal editorial note, it is encouraging to me — as editor of Creative Loafing — that at least some local leaders, such as Barnes, seem to be looking out for our free speech/free assembly rights. Also, I am proud that the CEO of the company that just bought CL this month is serious about First Amendment issues during a time when some news organizations let profits and relationships obscure our primary purpose — that is, bringing accurate and vigorously reported news to our communities. SouthComm acquired CL's Charlotte and Tampa titles from Atlanta-based CL Inc. in early October.
As Rhiannon Fionn, who has tirelessly covered the Occupy Charlotte movement for CL since the first day of the Occupation, wrote to me in an email today, "This is really reassuring."
Here's the full text of Ferrell's e-mail to Alexia Poe, press secretary to Tennessee Gov. Haslam:
I learned this morning that one of my reporters at the Nashville Scene was arrested last night while covering the protests at Legislative Plaza despite identifying himself as a reporter. I expect the Governor to publicly apologize to him for this violation of his rights and to assure the people of Tennessee that this administration will not interfere with the right to a free press that has been a fundamental right in this country since our founding. I'm sure you understand that every media outlet in this country will vigorously defend our right to cover government action without fear of arrest or reprisal.
Listen to the audio in this video clip as Meador informs troopers that he is a member of the media, but offers no resistance to the arrest. The Tennessee Highway Patrol charged Meador with public intoxication, which they clearly do not mention to him in the audio of the arrest below. As Meador's colleague at the Scene pointed out in a blog post last night, "If that charge was made up later to discredit Meador or even more appallingly, to divert attention from what a Metro Night Court judge last night told officers was a blatantly unconstitutional overstepping of government and police authority nobody who cares about their First Amendment freedoms should sleep in Tennessee tonight."
(Correction: The headline on the original version of this story incorrectly stated that Meador was jailed. He actually was arrested and released. We apologize for the error.)