The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports that the overwhelming majority of police arrests of journalists occur while they are reporting on ongoing protests. When journalists are arrested, they often lose access to their phones and their computers. The potential for police review of the content stored on their cameras makes journalists particularly vulnerable targets.
For this reason, reporters have begun writing what are known as “legal support numbers” – names and phone numbers of their attorneys -- on their inner arms or bodies. After all, one’s contact lists aren’t much use if one’s phone is confiscated or destroyed.
However, criminal prosecutors are now starting to argue that writing contact information on your body prior to attending a protest is evidence of criminal intent. This is because not only journalists are writing legal support numbers, but so too are protestors and activists. The argument is that, if a person is writing numbers on their body which would only be useful if they is jailed, then that person reasonably expects they will get into an altercation with the police. The outcome would be to effectively criminalize legal support numbers.
Freedom of the Press Foundation argues that if prosecutors succeed in criminalizing legal support numbers for protesters, it’s just a matter of time before the same arguments are made against journalists. For that reason, more than 40 organizations are seeking to challenge prosecution arguments against legal support numbers on the basis that criminalizing them would violate the First Amendment as well as the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.
The National Lawyers Guild, leading this coalition, states that “[p]eople write these numbers on their arms in preparation for demonstrations precisely because they know they may be unjustly detained, and because they know that police use mass arrest as a form of crowd control that is calculated to disrupt protected speech.”
Protect The 1st is alarmed to see prosecutors targeting Americans for taking steps to ensure their access to legal counsel in the event they are arrested.
When the charges brought against arrested protestors can include domestic terrorism, access to counsel is vital. It also has the added benefit of being a constitutional right. Journalists fulfill a vital role in our democracy, and assuming guilt simply for writing a phone number will only serve to chill speech and undermine our First Amendment rights.
PT1st looks forward to further developments in this story, and in these cases.