The New York City Police department, which issues (or refuses to issue) press passes and identification cards, has denied credentials to at least three on-line reporters we know of, including Gotham Gazette city hall editor Courtney Gross.

In some instances, the denial seems like out and out political retribution. Leonard Levitt, a former Newsday reporter who now writes the blog NYPD Confidential, lost his pass. Levitt has been a persistent police critic, dating back to his days in print. But once he moved on line, the city had an excuse to pull his credentials.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on Levitt’s behalf against the NYPD, demanding it reveal the criteria for press passes. Interestingly, the department’s own instruction page for getting credentials makes no distinction between on-line and other reporters saying that credentials are for “are for those individuals who are full-time, news staff employees.”

The police also revoked press credential for Rafael Martínez Alequin, a bit of a gadfly whose questions apparently irritated Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Martínez Alequin had had a small print publication but switched to on-line only with a blog called Your Free Press. In denying the permit, the department reportedly said Martinez Alequin had failed to prove that he was “a full-time employee of a news gathering organization covering spot or breaking news events on a regular basis.”

As for Gotham Gazette, the denial of credentials is ironic. Until a few years ago, we published a small hard-copy newsletter that went out to maybe a couple of thousand New Yorkers and was handed out free at city libraries. Our reporters had press passes. Starting in 1999, we began moving operations on-line, picking up thousands more readers in the process — but putting our press credentials in jeopardy. We are now exclusively on-line.

As long as hardly anyone read us, we were real reporters in the eyes of the police bureaucracy; now that tens of thousands of people do, we’re not. And to use the department’s own words, Gotham Gazette is a “news gathering organization”; Courtney does cover “spot or breaking news on a regular basis.”

In Courtney’s case, the department has resorted to evasive tactics. There is a right to appeal but the department’s Office of Public Information has delayed setting a date for one. Calls go unanswered.

The department’s action raise a number of issues. Why does an agency headed by a mayoral appointee and replete with politics get to decide who can cover that mayor and the city government? And as the barriers separating journalists from everyone else fall, what defines a journalist? Everyone seems to have a blog. Should the NYPD give all of them press credentials. Is that realistic in light of security concerns? Probably not. So then, back to square one: Who gets to decide who is and who is not a journalist and what criteria should they use?