Another try at a protest outside Bloomberg’s townhouse, this time about NYPD treatment of the press

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Police guard Bloomberg's townhouse. (Animal New York)
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Activists are planning a visit to the block where Michael Bloomberg lives to protest the city's alleged infractions on what they say are the First Amendment rights of protesters and journalists covering protesters.

They've tried this before: A Nov. 20 protest was meant to gather a drum circle in front of the mayor's townhouse on East 79th Street, but police restricted demonstrators to an area at the end of the block, only just within hearing distance of the Mayor's doorstep.

So this time, it's a protest about protests, and the way the city handles them.

Participants are urged to come armed with cameras rather than percussion instruments for the 10-hour demonstration on Jan. 6. Organizers say they will photograph, film and livestream "Bloomberg's block or as close as we can get" from 2 p.m. to midnight, according to a Facebook page advertising the event.

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"Send a message about his targeting of the press," reads the invitation to the protest, "and use our First Amendment rights to make him stop arresting the press."

Recalling the Nov. 20 event at which the drummers had to bang away from behind police barricades on the edge of Central Park, civil-liberties activist and attorney Norman Siegel said the restriction was unconstitutional.

"The last time I read the First Amendment, it didn't say you have the right to protest except on the block where Mayor Bloomberg lives," he told Capital. "It's important for New Yorkers to know that 79th Street between 5th and Madison is now a no-First Amendment zone. ... I think what they're doing is a quintessential abuse of authority, so we need to challenge this in hopes that the mayor will change the current practice."

A Bloomberg spokesman would not comment. A New York Police Department spokesman did not respond to an inquiry as to whether police planned to restrict protesters from access to the mayor's block.

Nearly 20 journalists, including some in possession of NYPD-issued credentials, have been arrested in New York over the past several months, said Josh Stearns, who has been tracking journalist arrests nationwide for Free Press, a non-profit media reform group.

These arrests, as well as other alleged violations of the rights of the press, have pitted local journalism advocates, First Amendment activists and local and national news organizations against the Bloomberg Administration and the NYPD; while the dispute has intensified in the wake of this fall's Occupy Wall Street protests, relations between the city and the media have been cooling since at least the summer, when representatives of several news organizations met with NYPD brass to air complaints of undue access restriction. Several months later, a coalition of 13 news organizations sent a letter to the NYPD condemning its officers' treatment of journalists during Occupy Wall Street; the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a companion letter to the mayor's office.

John Penley, an activist and former freelance photojournalist once described by the New York Post as "New York's cuddliest anarchist,"  is organizing the Jan. 6 protest, which he called an "interesting exercise of the First Amendment," adding that comedians would also be on hand to do stand-up about the arresting of reporters. He said he expects a turnout of several hundred, though more than 4,000 have been invited via the Facebook page.

"It's gonna be kind of a First Amendment three-ring circus up there," he said.

Siegel said he will be present for part of the day to assist the protesters. (For the other part he will be in court representing two journalists from the website Gothamist who are appealing their third denial by the NYPD for press credentials.)

In an interview with Capital last week, Deputy Inspector Kim Royster said that the department had "stepped up" its efforts to train officers in media relations policy during protests and other events where a police presence is warranted. She cited the re-issuing of a departmental order not to "unreasonably interfere with media access," the distribution of a "Cooperation with Media" summary at protest sites, and meetings with commanding officers to reinforce these guidelines.

"What we're trying to do is reach every level of officer so that they will be informed about the media and cooperate with the media at the scene of a breaking news event," said Royster. "We want our officers to be aware that the media will be there to gather information and present it to the public ... and that the media is allowed anywhere the public is allowed."

But sporadic reports of credentialed journalists being obstructed by police have surfaced as recently as the World Financial Center protests on Dec. 12 and the Dec. 17 attempted "reoccupation" of Duarte Square.

MSNBC anchor Lawrence O'Donnell had harsh words for the NYPD during his prime-time show last night, calling on the NYPD to fire officers who have violated the department's policy on the treatment of reporters.

"There is only one way for the NYPD to seriously deal with the outlaw cops who willfully or ignorantly violate this rule," he said. "They must be fired. Not disciplined, not lose some vaction days. They must be fired. Firing them is the only way to demonstrate that the NYPD respects the Constitution of the United States of America."

Royster wouldn't comment last week on whether any officers had been reprimanded, but said that incidents involving the mistreatment of journalists "have been brought to our attention and are being reviewed." You can watch the full clip of O'Donnell's NYPD  opinion segment (which is more than four minutes long) below:

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