Ferguson and the suppression of free speech
For nearly two weeks, the small town of Ferguson, Missouri has been overrun with attention following the shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer took place on August 9. Since then, the town took extreme measures to cover up the crime and even resorted to police brutality to deal with angry protestors and media figures seeking further details on the story. Even now, it's unclear whether the full story has been told – citizens have taken to social media to spread photos of the event, but censorship still leaves certain details to the question.
It's been many years since there's been such a major demonstration of curbing the basic American right of free speech, and Ferguson has been a testament to the power of the Internet in breaking a story that the powers that be are hoping to hide from the public. Here is a basic overview of the ways the riots in Ferguson were actively suppressed in media, and the inevitable details that have emerged.
A space where free speech does not exist
Following the death of Michael Brown, the 21,000 populace of Ferguson reacted with anger – because Brown was not armed nor threatening the officer, the conversation quickly turned to race as Brown was a black teenager and the officer, though no information had been released at the time, was a middle-aged Caucasian male. Journalists flocked from all over to the sleepy town to learn more about the story, and police retaliated with violence and arrest, claiming not to know the difference between the writers and the protestors angry about the circumstances of Brown's death. Missouri Highway Patrol Capital Ron Johnson spoke to the crisis in a public statement and defended the work of his officers.
"When officers are running around, we're not sure who's a journalist and who's not," he said according to ATTP. "Yes, if I see somebody with a $50,000 camera on their shoulder, I'm pretty sure, but some journalists are walking around, and all you have is a cell phone because you're from a small media outlet. Some of you may just have a camera around your neck. So yes, we may take some of you into custody."
According to a report from Politicus USA, this is exactly what happened to two reporters who were writing at a McDonald's in town – when they didn't move quickly enough following the officer's request, the two were arrested. While filming police in the street, reporters from Al Jazeera had tear gas directed at them, giving them no choice but to abandon their work. This is in addition to a "suggested" curfew in the town that essentially placed Ferguson under martial law for several days to curb the anger and ability of protestors to accomplish anything in the area.
What can be done
NPR reporter Carrie Johnson wrote on the violations of the First Amendment in regards to free speech and assembly in Ferguson, and interviewed longtime practicer of law Floyd Abrams about the issues the town's police force could face legally.
"A core problem of the events in Ferguson from the point of view of press coverage is that there appears to have been … an effort to prevent press coverage," he explained to the souce. "And that's just constitutionally and from a policy point of view unacceptable."
Essentially, Ferguson is a bubble of controversy waiting to burst and be addressed. The information about the identity of Michael Brown's killer made its way through the news thanks to sharer on social media, and anger has been stirred by his being on paid leave from work. One of the most important lessons Ferguson has taught us is the power freedom of speech has, and the desperateness some may have at keeping this right at bay.