Government Doesn’t Decide Who Is (and Isn’t) a Journalist

Emilie Raguso was incredulous.

Standing outside a conference room at a county office building on November 29, the veteran journalist and owner and founder of the Berkeley Scanner had been denied entry to a press conference called by Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price. The kind of press conference she’d attended — without issue — hundreds of times before.

But that day, Price’s media reps had refused to honor Raguso’s press pass from the Oakland Police Department, telling her they were conducting a review of her press credentials. “They were telling me that I was not even a reporter, that I just had a personal blog and was not allowed in there,” she said. The spokesperson for Price said to obtain credentials to cover their press conferences, she had to be part of “a newsroom with a management structure and editorial oversight.”

Raguso immediately turned to the First Amendment Coalition for help, and almost immediately, FAC’s legal director, David Loy, responded. “It seemed like he dropped everything to advocate on my behalf.”

Loy didn’t buy the DA office’s reasoning. In a letter sent to Price the day after the press conference, Loy described how her office’s actions violated Raguso’s First Amendment rights.

“The government doesn’t get to decide who does the reporting,” Loy said in a recent interview. “They can’t question a reporter’s status on the basis of the nature of the publication whether online, TV, or radio. If you gather the news to disseminate to the public, you are a reporter.”

Price responded to Loy’s letter by agreeing to admit Raguso, but also said that her office was working on a new press credentialing policy. In a second letter, Loy informed Price that her office “must acknowledge that a journalist is anyone who gathers information for the purpose of disseminating it to the public, and no particular credentials are or should be required to establish that fact.” The letter concluded: “Ultimately, it is the public that suffers when governments attempt to gatekeep and control access to information.”

Raguso was thankful that FAC stood up for her and others, “They made it clear that the government had to follow the law and not restrict access, not only for me but others of the working press, new or smaller outlets.”