A Statement from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
For more information, contact: Bob Schapiro 973-509-9700
or Ron Miskoff 732-278-1868
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
All Americans have the right to know when they are talking to the government, especially to those who enforce the laws. In certain countries, when people talk to a doctor, a priest or a journalist, they may later find that they were talking to an undercover policeman. That is why the events of March 18th in Saddle River continue to be disturbing to the NJ Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
It violates the rights of all who attend such events, whatever their political views, when a NJ state trooper not only poses as a press photographer at an appearance by Governor Christie, but then takes pictures of those who protest the Governor’s policies. Further, there is no redress. Your photo may be in a police file, just because you stood in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“New Jersey needs a formal ban keeping police from posing as journalists and other professionals,” says NJ-SPJ President Bob Schapiro, noting that many federal agencies have adopted such a ban, not only to protect journalists but also to preserve public trust in law enforcement. Schapiro, who has served as a foreign correspondent in China, the Middle East and Central America, believes that police should never pose as journalists, doctors or any other profession where law-abiding citizens have a reasonable expectation that journalists are in fact journalists. “Such masquerades erode the basic trust that holds society together. I have seen what it does overseas. It should never happen here.”
The board of the NJ Society of Professional Journalists unanimously approved Schapiro’s statement. NJ-SPJ feels that police may be in uniform or in plainclothes; they may even go undercover, disguised as drug dealers or such, but only when there is probable cause and proper oversight. The March 18th incident, however, appears to be the work of one officer and, to an extent, his supervisor. The NJ Attorney General has issued a cease and desist order. The New Jersey SPJ is calling for that order to become a permanent regulation.
Imagine going to a certified accountant, or to a tax advice website, only to find that you were secretly being monitored by a police officer. “It happens in other countries,” says Schapiro, “even some democracies, which lack the basic protections of the U.S. Constitution. Journalists see this sort of thing all too often. It is no accident that the section of America’s Bill of Rights that protects a free press is also the one that safeguards the right of all citizens to express themselves about government policies.”
The New Jersey SPJ is gratified that Attorney General John Hoffman, State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, the ACLU and others have spoken out against the incident, recognizing that it is detrimental to both journalists and police. “The Society of Professional Journalists wishes to emphasize,” says Schapiro, “that having an informed and engaged public remains our central concern. The New Jersey SPJ continues to sponsor public forums on the topic of ‘who is a journalist.’ It is a legitimate question in a democracy. The question of ‘who is a secret policeman’ seems more suited to a totalitarian state.”