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FCC security guards manhandle reporter, eject him from meeting for asking questions

(Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

A veteran Washington reporter says he was manhandled by security guards at the Federal Communications Commission, then forced out of the agency’s headquarters as he tried to ask a commissioner questions at a public meeting on Thursday.

John M. Donnelly, a senior writer at CQ Roll Call, said he was trying to talk with FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly one-on-one after a news conference when two plainclothes guards pinned him against a wall with the backs of their bodies.

Seeking to question officials after news conferences is standard practice for journalists in Washington.

O’Rielly saw the encounter but continued walking, Donnelly said in a statement through the National Press Club, where he heads the Press Freedom Team.

After O’Rielly passed, the statement read, one of the guards asked why Donnelly hadn’t brought up his questions while the commissioner was at the podium. The guard then made him leave the building “under implied threat of force,” the statement read.

Donnelly said he had approached O’Rielly in an unthreatening way, but the guards treated him as if he had committed a crime.

“I could not have been less threatening or more polite,” he said. “There is no justification for using force in such a situation.”

O’Rielly responded to Donnelly directly on Twitter Thursday evening, apologizing for the encounter and saying he didn’t notice the guards getting physical with him.

“I saw security put themselves between you, me and my staff. I didn’t see anyone put a hand on you,” he said. In another tweet, he said he was “freezing and starving” at the time.

“I appreciate the apology,” Donnelly replied. “But ‘put themselves’ there makes it sound dainty. They pinned me.”

CQ Roll Call, owned by the Economist Group, publishes a variety of news products focused on policy and politics in Washington. It’s known for researched, unbiased reporting.

Donnelly, a well-known specialist in defense and military affairs, serves as president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association. He has previously headed the National Press Club’s Board of Governors and served on the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the U.S. Congress.

Thursday’s meeting involved a discussion of a range of proposed FCC rules, including a proposal to roll back net neutrality regulations adopted during the Obama administration. Several pro-net neutrality groups demonstrated outside the FCC’s headquarters in the morning.

An FCC spokesman told The Washington Post in an email: “We apologized to Mr. Donnelly more than once and let him know that the FCC was on heightened alert today based on several threats.”

The incident comes at a time of growing and undisguised hostility toward the press in the upper ranks of government. Since taking office, President Trump has called news organizations the “enemy of the people,” and Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, has described the media as “the opposition party.”

On Wednesday, when Trump was presented with ceremonial sword at a U.S. Coast Guard commencement ceremony, Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly told him, “You can use that on the press.”

Just last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price defended the arrest of a reporter who tried to question him about the Republican health care bill in a hallway at the West Virginia state capitol. The reporter, Dan Heyman of Public News Service, was jailed on a charge of willful disruption of state government processes. Price said police “did what they felt was appropriate.”

Donnelly said he noticed at Thursday’s FCC meeting that security guards were following him around the building as if he were a security threat, even though he was wearing his press badge and carrying a notebook and recorder. At one point, he said, guards waited for him outside the restroom.

“I thought they were just doing it to prevent anyone from getting too close to the commissioners, which I would understand as a security measure,” Donnelly told Mic. “But then it became apparent that they were singling me out as if I were someone who was some sort of trouble.”

The National Press Club’s statement identified the guard who ejected Donnelly as Frederick Bucher, head of the FCC’s security operations center.

According to the National Press Club, Bucher took a press badge from Bloomberg reporter Todd Shields last year after Shields spoke with a protester at an FCC meeting.

Jeff Ballou, the National Press Club’s president, condemned the guards’ actions on Thursday.

“Donnelly was doing his job and doing it with his characteristic civility,” Ballou said in a statement. “Reporters can ask questions in any area of a public building that is not marked off as restricted to them. Officials who are fielding the questions don’t have to answer. But it is completely unacceptable to physically restrain a reporter who has done nothing wrong or force him or her to leave a public building as if a crime had been committed.”

Others came to Donnelly’s defense as well:

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

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