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Firefighter attacks photographer at accident scene

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Firefighter attacks photographer at accident scene

  • A firefighter physically confronted a photographer for The (Madison) Capital Times to prevent her from taking pictures of a motorcycle accident during a parade in Stoughton, Wis.

May 20, 2004 — A photographer for The (Madison) Capital Times was allegedly attacked by a Stoughton, Wis., firefighter Sunday while attempting to report on a motorcycle accident during a parade.

Christopher Lenzendorf, of the Zor Shriners group, lost control of his motorcycle during the annual Syttende Mai parade — held in honor of the signing of Norway’s Constitution in 1814 — and crashed into a crowd of people along Main Street in Stoughton. About seven spectators, several of them children, were injured.

Assistant Fire Chief Melvin Benschop physically confronted photographer Michelle Stocker, 28, when she refused to stop taking pictures of the accident victims. Benschop pushed the camera into her forehead, knocking off the lens shade, Stocker said. He told her he was confiscating the camera, and the two engaged in a tug-of-war. Benschop did not returns calls requesting comment.

Stoughton Police Detective Erik Veum said he told Benschop and other firefighters at the scene that Stocker had a right to be there. “I told them not to make her the focus of what was going on,” he said.

Veum said the police department will not pursue further action because lawyers for the newspaper and the fire department are “working that out.”

Attorneys for the Capital Times are in the process of determining the appropriate action to take, said Dave Zweifel, the newspaper’s editor.

“What I hope to do with this is at least educate fire and police departments that there is a First Amendment, and people have the right to know how their employees are doing their job,” he said.

When journalists report on activities that occur in public, the First Amendment generally trumps individuals’ privacy interests. Photos of accidents are usually considered by courts to be newsworthy, and immune from privacy claims.

Zweifel said he has received a few negative e-mail messages from readers who were at the scene. An Emergency Medical Technician wrote to the paper saying Stocker was being too “intrusive,” Zweifel said.

Stocker said she was photographing the parade a block-and-a-half from the incident and rushed over when she saw the commotion. She said she encountered resistance by two firefighters and a father of an injured child as soon as she started photographing the victims.

Stocker said she respected the father’s request to not photograph his daughter, but continued taking pictures of the other victims.

“Emotions were very high,” Stocker said. “I see the father’s side, and at the same time it’s a very public event. Being a photojournalist, you want to document the whole scene.”

City Attorney Mike Haas told the Capital Times that Stocker did not follow emergency workers’ instructions to get out of the way. Stocker disagrees.

“I was trying to do my job,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for seven years so I know where I am and am not supposed to be.”


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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