Anyone who wants to understand the perils of being a citizen journalist in an age of DIY media should consider the case of Freeman Z.
Freeman Z is the nom de reportage of Jeffrey Manzelli, a Cambridge sound engineer who, three years ago, was convicted of illegally wiretapping an MBTA cop at an open-air anti-war rally. He was ordered to pay a $450 fine, perform 100 hours of community service, and serve two years on probation.
How you can “wiretap” someone, let alone a cop, at an outdoor protest is a story in and of itself, but it suggests that when it comes to annoying what some like to call the Establishment, the 43-year old Manzelli is something of a pro. Manzelli’s willingness to push the envelope may well have led to his arrest — police often think people like him are a pain in the ass. But he may also have learned the hard way about a law that is ripe for abuse.
On September 28, 2002, Manzelli, who often covers speeches and rallies for local radio stations, was tape recording interviews at a well-attended anti-war rally on Boston Common. He noticed MBTA police officer Brian Harer monitoring the entrance to the Park Street subway station. Manzelli approached and, from either 18 feet away (his version) or five feet away (Harer’s) snapped a photo of the cop. What happened next is still under debate in court, more than four years later.
According to Manzelli, Harer — who declined to be interviewed for this story — threatened him, saying, “Don’t take my picture; if you publish it I can sue you personally.”
Manzelli says he walked away for a few moments and returned to Harer, who was by then chatting with MBTA inspector Charles Kenneally. He began interviewing both men, asking Kenneally if it’s true that taking an officer’s photograph is verboten, all the while recording the conversation on a portable cassette deck. The microphone, he contends, was clearly visible.
“I just basically started interviewing him,” Manzelli tells the Phoenix. “I was holding my camera in one hand, and I had the microphone right in my hand like this. No intention to hide it.”
Here’s where things get interesting. According to trial testimony, Harer noticed the mic and asked if he was being recorded. Manzelli said yes, and Harer objected.
Fearing his tapes would be confiscated, Manzelli acted on an impulse. He threw the microphone and the fanny-pack in which he carried his tape recorder and cassettes toward a crowd of protesters. Court records state that Manzelli yelled “Take the tapes! Take the tapes!” He remembers hollering, “Take it! Take it! Take it!” instead. But that’s academic. Either way, his goal was to protect his recordings.
Manzelli then moved toward the Park Street stairs, where Harer followed him. He threw another cassette toward the crowd, before being slapped with handcuffs and charged with unlawful wiretapping and disorderly conduct. After a two-day trial in 2003, he was found guilty on both counts.
Having served his probation and paid his fine (a stay was placed on his community service), Manzelli is now working to have his conviction overturned. It would appear that he has cause to appeal. He was convicted of violating a state law that makes it a crime to “secretly hear, secretly record, or aid another to secretly hear or secretly record the contents of any wire or oral communication through the use of any intercepting device.” This, despite the fact that Harer testified to seeing his microphone — he claimed Manzelli was trying to hide it, Manzelli insists he wasn’t — and that no audiocassettes were played for the jury. As his appeal argues, “there was no evidence that Mr. Manzelli recorded anything, let alone recorded anything secretly.”
But clearing his own name is not what’s motivating Manzelli to appeal his conviction. He’s doing it for others like him — and in hope that others will be more like him. Given the explosion of blogging and online video, coupled with increasing mistrust of “mainstream media,” more people are sniffing out news stories on their own. Manzelli’s fight raises important questions about this new breed of journalist — specifically, what protections they are entitled to under the current law.
At first glance, Manzelli — or, more specifically, his Freeman Z persona — may look to be little more than another slightly eccentric lefty. He talks fast, and gesticulates wildly when he speaks, and in photos taken the day of his arrest, dressed in a flak vest and frame-pack, he looks like a cross between a war photographer and a thru-hiker.
As such, his case might seem easy to characterize as a minor kerfuffle. And old news to boot. Even Harer chuckled when reached by phone recently, seemingly incredulous that Freeman Z would merit a story: “A profile of him? I think I’ll pass.”