Did News Corp. and the NYPD block protesters' free speech?

On Monday, I reported on an incident that took place at the News Corp. headquarters building in midtown Manhattan, where three volunteers handing out copies of a New York Post parody issue were detained and their newspapers confiscated.

The episode raised a couple of troubling questions: Why did NYPD officers take it upon themselves to interfere with citizens who were exercising their First Amendment rights without breaking the law? And did News Corp. -- a journalistic enterprise that has a vested interest in defending free speech -- have anything to do with it? The answers I've gotten are not reassuring.
Melissa Lockwood, one of the three volunteers involved in the incident, says she arrived at 1211 Avenue of the Americas at 4:30 a.m. to begin distributing copies of the parody, produced by an activist group called The Yes Men to call attention to climate change. Lockwood says she handed out hundreds of copies over three hours with no trouble.

But that changed sometime after 7:30 a.m., when one of her fellow volunteers succeeded in placing a paper into the hand of News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch as he entered the building. Shortly after that, says Lockwood, two police officers who had been observing from a patrol car parked nearby approached her and instructed her to stop what she was doing.

"They were like, 'These are not the real New York Post. This is a forgery. You could be in big trouble,'" Lockwood recalls. "They said we couldn't leave until the New York Post officials came to prove that that we had fraudulent papers." The officers took possession of several bundles of papers -- as the photo below, taken by photographer Jason Nicholas, shows -- and refused to allow passersby to take any more copies, says Lockwood. After about 20 minutes, she says, the police told the volunteers they could leave.

A spokesman in the police department's public information office, Detective Joseph Cavitolo, disputed some details of Lockwood's account. "Nobody was detained," Cavitolo says. "They were spoken to." He also insisted that the volunteers' newspapers weren't confiscated, but merely moved off the sidewalk, where they were blocking foot traffic. "Nobody took any papers," he says. Cavitolo could not say what had become of them.

But Lockwood insists she was detained, if only informally. "I asked if I could leave when they first approached me, and they were like, 'No, give us your ID,'" she says. She acknowledges that she made no attempt to recover the estimated 250 to 300 copies the police had taken, chalking it up to intimidation. "The policemen said they needed to have the papers there with them, because someone from the Post was coming over to inspect them ... and they implied we would be in more trouble if we were still there" when that happened, she says.

A spokesman for the Post did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but a spokeswoman for News Corp. insists the company had no involvement. (The Post ran an AP story on the parody today, with a good-natured headline: "We're flattered! Fake 'Post' prank.")

But Mike Bonanno, one of The Yes Men's two founders, believes a complaint from inside the building, possibly from Murdoch himself, did, in fact, prompt the police response. "[The volunteers] had been there for hours previous to that without having anyone respond," he says. "Then a News Corp. representative came out, and following that the police basically followed through on what the News Corp. representative wanted them to do. They tried to spank us."

Bonanno says he's prepared to let the incident go. "We see it as a minor inconvenience, no matter how illegal it was. They can take our words, but we have more."

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