June 21, 2023
Sent via email
District Attorney Alvin Bragg
New York County District Attorney’s Office
One Hogan Place
New York, NY, 10013
Dear District Attorney Bragg,
We, the undersigned press freedom and civil liberties organizations, write to ask that you drop the disorderly conduct charge (Section 240.20, Subsection 6) pending against photojournalist Stephanie Keith, who was documenting a vigil when she was unjustly arrested by New York City police on the evening of May 8, 2023. Her prosecution would set a harmful precedent of prosecuting reporters simply for doing their jobs and documenting matters of public importance.
Leading up to her arrest, Keith was photographing a vigil organized to commemorate the May 1 killing of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was choked to death on a New York subway train. Keith had been documenting demonstrations around New York in the wake of Neely’s death, with some of her coverage published in Brooklyn Magazine.
Around 8 p.m., Keith was near the northwest corner of East Houston Street and Lafayette Street when NYPD Chief of Patrol John M. Chell can be seen in a video of the arrest grabbing Keith’s arm. Chell can be seen forcefully pushing her into two officers in jackets marked “NYPD Community Affairs,” while yelling “lock her up.” Keith— who was wearing a press badge and was holding a camera— can be heard saying “Please don’t.” The photojournalist was then handcuffed and taken to the 7th Precinct, and then the 9th, where she was issued a court summons.
Later that evening, Chell said during a press conference that Keith “interfered” with three arrests before officers arrested her. However, Keith was simply doing her job and photographing police action and that evening’s vigil. No video has been released showing any alleged interference.
We are gravely concerned by the charges facing Keith. All of the videos of Keith’s arrest show that she was behaving professionally and trying to photograph events, and do not show her interfering with the police. Keith is an award-winning photojournalist whose clients have included Getty Images, Reuters, The New York Times, and Bloomberg. This year, she was part of the New York Times team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for their breaking news coverage of a fire in the Bronx. Keith was not at the vigil to participate in a protest or interfere with police but to perform the public service of documenting the news, as she’s been doing her entire career.
Our organizations document cases of press freedom violations both in the United States and globally. Our research shows that arresting reporters is a crude form of censorship: it stops journalists from documenting current events, and protracted legal proceedings to dismiss baseless charges create financial and time pressures for reporters. It is disappointing and concerning to see these tactics being deployed in New York City.
Furthermore, the prosecution of reporters in the United States is exceedingly rare, according to the non-partisan U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which maintains data on press freedom violations across the country. Prosecuting Keith would send a chilling message to journalists in New York City and beyond, and indicate to the wider public that New York City believes that members of the media can be prosecuted simply for doing their jobs.
We understand that your office does not usually take part in summons prosecutions, but we consider this to be an exceptional case. We urge you to dismiss the disorderly conduct charge against Keith and ensure that journalists working in New York City will not face punitive retaliatory measures from the city’s police.
Committee to Protect Journalists
Freedom of the Press Foundation
New York Publishers Association
Coalition for Women in Journalism
National Press Photographers Association
Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression
Reporters Without Borders
Online News Association
The Deadline Club, NYC Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists
National Coalition Against Censorship