On Wednesday afternoon, independent reporter J.B. Nicholas filed a story for Gothamist about two busts of Confederate generals and slaveholders Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson that reside at the "Hall of Fame for Great Americans," located at Bronx Community College. While Nicholas was speaking to BCC students about the statues, which hours later would be scheduled for removal by the president and condemned by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Nicholas was stopped by CUNY Public Safety officers, and arrested for trespassing.
Nicholas is a longtime New York City tabloid photographer and freelance journalist who has been arrested on the job at least a half dozen times over the years, and now carries a video camera on him to record his interactions with the police.
"I was interviewing the last student for the story, and she was very cool, and then I notice the white police car pull up," Nicholas says. "I had my press pass on, I had my credentials. They come up and say, 'This interview is over. Leave.' So I turn my camera on."
One of the officers tells Nicholas that what he is doing is "not official college business."
When Nicholas points out that it is a public college campus, another officer says, "That’s correct, which is a business, and includes businesses actually."
Nicholas says that a few moments after he turns the camera off he begins walking away; another officer arrives and the three seize him and push him face-first into a stone planter. He says he was then handcuffed and put into a police vehicle while a summons for trespassing was issued.
Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel says that on a public college campus, "If someone’s interviewing people and the students are willing to answer and there’s no disruption of the activity at that public space, your First Amendment right to engage in that activity is protected."
According to Siegel, the caveat is that if students feel bothered or "make a complaint to security, saying that the journalist is harassing us or annoying us or alarming us, the security could reasonably come over and say we’d like you to leave."
Nicholas says the police never told him he was bothering the students, and that the interviews with the students went well. A visit to the campus in June to photograph the busts was uneventful.
"Unfortunately in New York City, the police seem to have a problem with journalists," says Nicholas, who currently has a lawsuit against the NYPD's process of credentialing journalists pending in federal court. "This is the first time I’ve been arrested for simply reporting. They arrested me to punish me in retaliation for documenting their interference with news gathering and for asking their names," he says.
In an email that was sent to Nicholas and other BCC faculty on Wednesday afternoon after Gothamist published the first story on the statues, BCC executive legal counsel and deputy to the president, Karla Renee Williams, wrote:
The journalist was on campus today aggressively questioning students and faculty and became combative with our Public Safety Officers. He was arrested for trespassing. We will keep you updated and have increased public safety monitoring of the campus and Hall.
Representatives from BCC and the CUNY press office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nicholas' court date is in October. He has asked CUNY to investigate his arrest, and said he intends to fight the summons.
"I think this is a sign of the times," Siegel says. "The climate of 'fake news,' that journalists are our enemy, as our president has stated, has led to a climate where a security guard or police officer will be hostile to a journalist. And I think that we need to remember the importance of an open and robust free press."
Siegel added, "Reporters should not be arrested for doing their jobs."