Mayor Bloomberg did the right thing. He ordered the police to clear Zuccotti Park of the army of protesters that has occupied the park since Sept. 17.
It was clearly a most difficult decision. The mayor had to balance the rights of free speech and free assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment with the need to protect public health and safety. He promised that the Occupy Wall Street group would be allowed to return to the park but that it couldn’t bring back the tents and tarps they had brought in.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that about 200 people had been arrested by hundreds of police officers for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Sadly, in accomplishing this goal, the NYPD itself seems to have committed a violation of the First Amendment. Officers arrested and detained several journalists covering the action. Some press identification cards were reportedly confiscated.
The mayor said "the police department routinely keeps members of the press off to the side when they are in the middle of a police action. It’s to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect the members of the press to have the same rights as everybody else.”
The mayor has it wrong. That’s not the “routine” that New York’s press believes in. New York City is not a banana republic -- and the press should not be impeded or barred from an event in this city on the grounds that it’s for our own good. That’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for keeping a reporter away from a story.
And for the mayor to say that the NYPD “routinely keeps members of the press off to the side” when major events are occurring is hardly accurate. No self-respecting reporter wants to be kept away from an event and rely on some official to tell us about it later.
A NBC New York reporter, Chris Glorioso, was threatened with arrest when he protested strenuously about being kept away from the scene of action. Glorioso told me that about a dozen officers appeared to be assigned solely to keep journalists in check, far away from the scene of action.
It was a tumultuous event. And, many issues were left in its wake. Not the least is: how can an apparent conflict between keeping order and protecting the right of speech and assembly be resolved? And there were, of course, deep issues raised by the protest from the beginning involving the economy and Wall Street.
The Wall Street protesters deserve credit for bringing attention to the economic crisis, not only in New York but throughout the world. And it is vitally important, as the mayor said, to protect their right to assemble and speak out against what they perceive to be wrongs.
City Hall and the NYPD need to be vigilant, too, in protecting the rights of the press. The press is as important in protecting the rights of the people as the police force.
Editor's note: Gabe Pressman is also the president of the New York Press Club Foundation.