IndyBay photographer Bradley Stuart Allen outside 75 River St. in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
After surveying the December damage to a vacant bank building owned by Wells Fargo that included graffiti, broken cameras and damaged ceiling tiles, investigators from Santa Cruz Police Department went to work. They came up with preliminary list of 12 suspects—out of more than 75 who passed through the building—involved in the three-day occupation of 75 River Street. Police handed their list over to county District Attorney Bob Lee’s office, and Lee’s office served 11 warrants to suspects in February.
Among the suspects were Bradley Stuart Allen and Alex Darocy, both of whom say they were acting as journalists for IndyBay.org, an open-source news website with an anti-authoritarian slant.
After the dust of the occupation settled last year, Police Chief Kevin Vogel thanked occupiers for ending the protest peacefully but vowed prosecution was on the way. “It is our intent to work with the District Attorney's office to identify those that are responsible and hold them accountable for the trespass,” Vogel wrote in a Dec. 8 letter.
Both photojournalist Allen and Darocy, a videographer, claim they were not participating in the protest but simply acting as reporters covering the news.
“I feel like the police and DA are coming after me personally for my 10 years as a volunteer for IndyMedia,” says Allen, who has written online stories that were at times critical of Santa Cruz police. Some of Allen’s less edgy pictures have been picked up by various publications, including the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which ran one of his photos on its cover in 2006. Allen, a substitute teacher for the past six years, has been unable to renew his teaching credentials since they expired Mar. 1.
Ben Rice, Allen’s attorney, has argued that his client’s charges should be dropped because he, along with Darocy, was acting as a journalist and didn’t participate in the protest at the 75 River building.
“Bradley has been involved in important stories for 10 years, and we gave the judge numerous examples of his work. In none of his photojournalism was he doing anything than other than reporting,” Rice says, citing his client’s coverage following Hurricane Katrina in both New Orleans and Houston.
The Society of Professional Journalists filed a letter on behalf of Allen shortly before his March preliminary hearing, as did the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Mr. Allen is a photojournalist and National Press Photographers Association member whose involvement in alleged criminal activity has amounted to no more than coverage of a newsworthy event,” wrote Lucy A. Dalgish, executive director for the Reporters Committee.
Assistant District Attorney Rebekah Young doesn’t see it that way and says a reporter’s resumé is no excuse for trespassing. “At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter,” Young says. “You could be Walter Cronkite and still be prosecuted. You could be the editor-in-chief for the New York Times.”
The so-called “Santa Cruz 11” facing charges also include Becky Johnson and Robert Norse, both of whom claim that they, too, are journalists.
Norse, a local agitator and bathrobe-wearing activist, says he’s hosted a show on Free Radio Santa Cruz, an unlicensed pirate radio station, for 15 years. He’s also written for Street Spirit, a San Francisco paper focused on homeless issues, and IndyBay, a subsidiary of the international Independent Media Center. Johnson is also an IndyBay contributor.
Both the SCPD and the DA’s office have brushed off rumors that cops stamped a red bullseye on the backs of opinionated journalists.
In any case, Young says she doesn’t think of online contributors, such as Darocy and Allen, as reporters. “I believe they function more as the media arm of the [occupying] organization than traditional journalists. But frankly it doesn’t matter,” Young says, arguing that they were trespassing regardless.
At Allen’s and Darocy’s preliminary hearing last month, the judge dismissed charges against the two for felony vandalism. The judge did not dismiss three other charges for conspiracy to commit a crime and two counts of misdemeanor trespassing.
‘Praying For Leniency’
In an age when anyone with a smart phone can snap a picture and write a blog, various people have different views on what it means to be a journalist—and whether or not simply writing about the news is enough.
An anonymous news post on IndyBay says Allen and company weren’t the only reporters in the building. That story links to a Santa Cruz Sentinel photograph that looks like it was taken inside the building. The post suggests there’s a double standard for traditional newspaper journalists versus those who write for free websites. The Sentinel photo credits staff photographer Shmuel Thaler.
Journalists may not be actually entitled to special rights when it comes to trespassing on private property. That’s according to the handbook from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the groups that wrote a letter on behalf of Allen. The handbook reads, “Reporters do not have a right to knowingly trespass just because they are covering the news.”
Executive director Dalgish acknowledges that reporters don’t have a separate right to duck under yellow tape and go where everyone else can’t.
“We’re praying for leniency,” she says. “We’re not saying, ‘You can’t get this guy on anything.’ We’re asking you to dismiss the charges, or at least felony charges.”
Of the three charges Allen still faces, one is a felony.
While the first amendment does offer journalists some protections, San Francisco media lawyer Jim Wagstaffe says it has limitations. “The first amendment’s not a hunting license,” Wagstaffe says.
Wagstaffe says his firm has won several cases in which he was able to prove his journalist defendants’ innocence because they provided important coverage and were not doing anything illegal besides trespassing. But all of those were on public property, and he says private property is different. Says Wagstaffe, “I’ve never seen a case that holds that there’s a newsgathering constitutional right to trespass on private property.”