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Police in Ferguson are violating the First Amendment, legal expert says

Unrest continues in the US town of Ferguson. Reporters are complaining that police seem to be targeting them, as well as protesters, with arrests and by keeping them from certain areas - supposedly for safety reasons.

The National Guard may be in Ferguson, but it's keeping its distance from streets filled with protesters. Meanwhile, police try to enforce restrictions to get a handle on a situation that has flared since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was

fatally shot by a police officer

.

Enforcing restrictions appears to include reining in reporters.

Over the past week, several journalists were hindered from researching events in Ferguson, and some were detained. A Getty photographer was arrested while covering the demonstrations and later released. A "Washington Post" and a "Huffington Post" reporter were also arrested, and an Al Jazeera camera team reported police intentionally fired tear gas at them.

In the most recent case,

two German reporters were handcuffed, arrested and detained

for three hours on Monday after allegedly failing to follow police instructions to keep moving on an empty street. The reporters were trying to get photos of a gas station set on fire and looted last week.

'Grave violations of press freedom'

Law enforcement measures to protect public safety in Ferguson include enforcing a requirement that individuals remain moving unless gathered in an "organized protest area."

Protesters with banners in Ferguson REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Magarian: "People have the constitutional right to protest peacefully in the streets"

"This is a technique that law enforcement in the US has increasingly used over the past 10-15 years," said Gregory Magarian, a law professor and expert on free speech at Washington University in St Louis. "They're trying to corral protesters into a contained space to make the job of law enforcement easier."

The police were trying to prevent them from doing their job, according to Ansgar Graw, correspondent at German newspaper "Die Welt." "That's a glaring violation of press freedom." Frank Herrmann, who writes for German regional papers, calls Ferguson police's accusations of not following instructions "completely absurd," adding they were evidently meant to intimidate the reporters.

Police overreaction

"The only way that police are within their rights to detain journalists is if the police are dealing with an emergency situation," Magarian told DW, adding that in this sense, journalists are like anyone else. But none of the arrests of members of the press in Ferguson met those criteria, the law professor argued.

"There are too many cases of police seeming to go after journalists not just while the journalists doing their job, but because they're doing their job."

And that, Magarian said, is a violation of the First Amendment, which also prohibits infringing on the freedom of the press.

The German branch of Reporters Without Borders has blasted the latest arrests, calling them "completely unacceptable."

"We demand that reporters are allowed to do their jobs in Ferguson without having to be afraid of being arrested by the police, or even shot at," the organization's Astrid Frohloff said in a statement in Berlin on Tuesday.

Magarian believes that law enforcement officials in Ferguson and in St Louis County seem to be living in a bubble, completely ignorant of the images that people around the country and around the world are getting of what they're doing. "I don't know what it's going to take for these people to understand that what they're doing is appalling to a huge range of people," he said.

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