A California judge refused to dismiss a felony conspiracy and two misdemeanor trespassing charges against a photojournalist for his coverage of an “Occupy” demonstration in Santa Cruz.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Sillman did rule last week, however, that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence that Bradley Stuart Allen committed felony vandalism, another offense he faced as a result of his newsgathering activities, and dismissed that charge after a hearing last week, Allen’s attorney, Ben Rice, said in an interview.
Allen, another freelance photojournalist and nine others were charged in connection with the three-day occupation of a vacant bank building by a group "acting in solidarity with Occupy Santa Cruz," according to court documents.
At the preliminary hearing to determine whether the government had enough evidence to proceed with the charges, two police officers testified that they saw Allen enter and leave the bank during the first day of the occupation, Rice said. The prosecution also presented photographs depicting Allen on the roof and near the entrance of the building, Rice said, adding that Allen never occupied the building for any length of time and was present only to capture images of the newsworthy event.
The crux of the government's felony conspiracy to commit trespass charge against Allen is that he posted on indybay.org, the web site for the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, the photographs of the protesters' initial occupation of the building and the police response as a "call to arms" to support and further the occupation, Rice said. The prosecution contended that Allen was not an independent journalist covering the event but a protester participating in it, and cited his lack of adherence to what it considers journalistic standards, including editing, fact-checking or keeping notes of interviews, as evidence of such, Rice added.
The prosecution argued that "I was such a talented social documentarian that I was the propaganda for the undefined group of occupiers," Allen said in an interview.
To rebut this assertion, Allen presented evidence that he has a master’s degree in social documentation and has used his photography skills to cover several newsworthy events nationwide, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rice said.
Allen's defense showed that he regularly covers protests in California, including a peace march in a local community with gang violence and a demonstration that University of California Santa Cruz faculty members held in 2008 in support of their colleagues who were targeted with firebombs in what authorities called attacks by animal rights’ activists, Rice added.
Allen also presented about 30 letters from people who said that whenever they encountered him at such events, Allen was always acting as a neutral journalist and not as a protester, his lawyer said.
Rice tried to convince the judge that Allen was acting in that same capacity when he posted his photographs of the demonstration and police response to the Internet.
“Nothing in the photos or the testimony suggests that he was exhorting the crowd or appears to be in any type of leadership role or in any other way demonstrating,” Rice said.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and National Press Photographers Association submitted a letter brief in support of Allen, urging the court to grant him leniency, given the constitutional protection for newsgathering.
Allen said the government is engaging in selective prosecution, opting not to charge other members of the news media present at the event with any criminal offenses.
"They are trying to control who gets to be deemed a journalist and which stories can be reported on and how they are reported on," he said.
Allen's next court appearance is scheduled for March 29.
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