New York City wants to know if reporters have files

Photo: Mike Segar/REUTERS

After the NYPD arrested reporters covering the 2020 protests over the killing of George Floyd, the city council passed a law stripping police of the power to issue press letters. Instead, the law instructed the mayor’s office to distribute the passes that allow journalists access to official events and behind police lines.

Previously, the NYPD had not asked reporters about their criminal records to obtain identifying information. But City Hall went further, quietly adding a rule requiring reporters who ask for credentials to also disclose whether they have records. The change caught reformers off guard and led them to call for a reminder of the rule akin to a background check.

When the city council passed Local Law 46 last spring, it transferred licensing authority to the mayor’s office of media and entertainment. Months later, at the end of the de Blasio administration, the MOME drafted the new rule, which went into effect in January under the Adams administration. The rule specifically asks applicants if they have a felony conviction or “an open case for lawful arrest for a misdemeanor while gathering information,” regardless of the conviction.

“The standard should be the legal conviction, or plea, of the misdemeanor or crime that is related to the journalist’s work, activity or purpose,” said Norman Siegel, longtime civil rights attorney and former director executive of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

MOME would also be whether issuing a credential to someone with a record “would involve an unreasonable risk to property or to the safety or well-being of specific individuals or the general public”, which has drawn criticism for being too vague.

“What do these words mean? asked Ron Kuby, the famous criminal defense attorney. “What is an ‘unreasonable risk’ as opposed to a reasonable risk? We all pose a risk. He added that “the idea that anyone who has committed a prior crime at any time is halfway to being denied a press pass is regressive and fundamentally incompatible with any kind of rehabilitation process.”

Keith Powers, the council member who sponsored the law, said he was surprised by how the MOME interpreted its new authority. “I was unaware of this rule in the application process and believe it should be removed to meet the intent of Local Law 46,” he said in a statement.

The mayor’s office says it is sticking to MOME policy. “The safety and well-being of New Yorkers is our top priority,” a City Hall spokesperson said by email, calling them “additional safeguards.” City Hall pointed out that the rules were established before Adams took office and reiterated that credentials cannot be blocked solely because of a candidate’s criminal history. They also noted that the NYPD has the discretion to suspend credentials if a reporter is arrested on the job.

JB Nicholas, a formerly incarcerated reporter who previously sued the NYPD over the credentialing process, called what MOME is doing a “dirty trick.”

“MOME has no legal authority to require background checks where the City Council bill does not allow it – and, indeed, has specifically removed it from its bill following objections from the community of journalists,” he said by email. “Looks like we’re going back to court.”

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