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St. Paul won't prosecute most journalists arrested during RNC

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Peace Protesters
Anti-war protesters sit on John Ireland Blvd. near downtown St. Paul during the Republican National Convention. Several journalists were arrested along with protesters during the course of the week.
MPR photo/Caroline Yang

The city's decision brings some closure to criticisms that the police cracked down on news reporters and photographers who were simply doing their jobs.

At least 42 journalists identified by the Society of Professional Journalists were arrested during the four days of the convention. And many reporters said they were wrongly caught up in the sweep.

But today's decision should not suggest any wrongdoing by police as they tried to maintain order on the streets, said city attorney John Choi.

"I think there was confusion for a lot of people," Choi said. "And at the end of the day, the police department needed to do what they had to do, which was to control the scene and ensure there was public safety."

Mayor Chris Coleman agreed. 

"When an officer is trying to control a scene, there's a moment where they have to make a decision whether to arrest someone," Coleman said. "That is a different decision than (what) is made in the calm and cool reflection of what is made in an attorney's office."

It's still unclear how many reporters will no longer face charges. In making that decision, Coleman said the city will broadly define journalists. But he stopped short of saying whether bloggers, for example, would be included in the mix. The mayor said all cases would be viewed individually.

At a time when alternative media outlets are growing, Coleman said it's difficult to ask police to make a distinction between an activist and a journalist -- especially in chaotic situations.

"There isn't the time at the scene to sort through all those things and determine if someone has just put a Post-it on their forehead that said 'press,' or whether there's a legitimate credential," he said.

Among the news people who won't be prosecuted are Amy Goodman and two of her producers. Goodman is the host of the public radio and television program "Democracy Now!" She was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing the legal process. 

"It's good that they have dropped these false charges against us," she said. "But the arrests need to be investigated. We were prevented from fully doing our work. My colleagues were violently arrested."

She and the two producers were wearing credentials around their neck and identified themselves as members of the media, Goodman said. 

Producer Nicole Salazar had gone out to document the first day's protests. Salazar ended up capturing her own arrest as officers allegedly shoved her to the ground.

The national Society of Professional Journalists praised the city's decision. 

Dave Aeikens, the group's national president, said the treatment of journalists during the RNC has raised a lot of questions, he said.

Even if reporters won't face criminal charges, their detainments still prevented them from getting the story, said Aeikens, a reporter for the St. Cloud Times.

"It's really inconvenient and really unfortunate," he said. "You shouldn't be arrested simply for trying to cover a protest. That's news. And the police need to be able to do their jobs, and journalists need to be able to do theirs. 

The Minnesota chapter of the journalists association will hold a forum Monday night bringing journalists and law-enforcement officials together to talk about the arrests.

"And we hope, now that we're coming to the conclusion of some of this, that we can move forward," Aeikens said. "We'd be willing and welcome any conversation with law enforcement, here or anywhere in the United States, to talk about how we can keep journalists from being arrested as they cover these massive protests."

Most of the journalists who were arrested were rounded up on the final night of the convention near the Capitol. More than 300 people in all were arrested that night. Some journalists and bystanders say they were detained after not knowing how to peacefully leave the scene.

All told, 487 people were cited on misdemeanor charges during the RNC. It's still unclear what will happen to the hundreds of non-journalists who were arrested during the course of the convention. 

The city attorney is sifting through police reports now and expects to resolve some of those cases within the next few weeks.

In addition, the Ramsey County Attorney's office has charged 18 adults with felony charges, including conspiracy to riot. And an additional 13 cases involve juveniles. A spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney's office said all cases were still active.