Two hundred yards from Newhouse 3 — a building with the First Amendment plastered across its glass façade — I was nearly arrested by the Syracuse Police Department while covering a story.
I was there because of Jim DeFerio, a recognizable figure on campus. The anti-homosexuality protestor and Syracuse resident had been standing on the grass by Waverly Avenue since 12:25 p.m. He held his sign “Homosexuality is sin, Christ can set you free!” for nearly four hours without much fanfare.
By the time I was assigned the story around 4 p.m., fewer than two dozen students had gathered around DeFerio. Three students waved large posters to Waverly traffic in protest. Others scrawled opposing messages with markers on notebook paper.
The gathering was small but vocal. A male student said DeFerio looked attractive. Things suddenly got heated as the two battled ideologies with faces just inches apart. DeFerio said he contacted Syracuse Police Capt. Joe Sweeney. DeFerio claimed the student sexually harassed him.
Syracuse Police arrived soon. Officers J. Baldwin and K. Carney immediately acted to disperse the crowd, giving students three minutes to disperse, citing the city ordinance for “causing a public disturbance.”
Most of the onlookers left. I stood on the sidewalk as Carney and Baldwin held their post. Carney suddenly turned to me as I put down my camera after taking a picture of DeFerio.
“What are you doing?” she said. “I thought made myself clear.”
I was stunned but stayed on my toes. I explained that I was covering the event as a journalist with The NewsHouse. Didn’t matter, she said. I was in violation of local law if I stayed there.
I refused. It was a public sidewalk. I was doing my job. I wasn’t protesting or spitting or throwing condoms at DeFerio — all of which happened.
Next thing I know Baldwin had me by the arm. I resisted and went to move my camera to the other shoulder. Carney said, “If that arm hits me, we have you for assaulting a police officer.”
As Baldwin pushed me against the patrol car, I asked to see the ordinance in his blue pamphlet. He handed it to me, and I read it out loud to him. I questioned the vaguely worded paragraph.
Then things shifted back. All I wanted was DeFerio’s name, I said, and I’ll be gone (not entirely true, but I was under pressure). To my surprise, Baldwin gets it for me.
As fast as it happened, it was over. I interviewed Baldwin for five minutes about how police handle protests, after he had me pinned against a car.
I went back to work, finished gathering names and talking with the university’s Department of Public Safety officers about private and public property. When I was assigned the event, I knew I would probably end up writing a story. Putting my name in it wasn’t part of the plan.
Maria Salatino holds a sign in protest of Jim DeFerio on the corner of Waverly and University avenues Tuesday afternoon. (Photo: Keith Edelman)
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