Just weeks after the arrest of a freelance videographer by a Suffolk County police officer was recorded and posted on YouTube, yet another cameraman’s confrontation with authorities over filming in a public place was caught on video in the same Long Island town.
In the most recent incident, an emergency services official responding to the scene of a chemical spill in Bohemia, N.Y., was filmed attempting to wrestle a camera away from a WNBC journalist. The string of occurrences has raised concerns among civil liberties advocates and journalists over what they said are repeated violations of the right to film in public places.
Corey Stoughton, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer working on one of the cases in Suffolk County, said that these incidents prove that there is a larger problem.
"There is a constitutional right to film public officials performing their duties in public places if the person is not interfering with them carrying out their duties," Stoughton said. "This new incident suggests that there needs to be a countywide approach to addressing this issue and better communication across the board."
Although parts of the recording of the most recent scuffle are inaudible, the official can be heard repeatedly yelling, “I told you to stop,” as he struggles to jerk the camera from the videographer's hands at the scene. The camera was damaged during the confrontation, according to LI News, who posted the video to YouTube on Sept. 3.
Police eventually intervened between the two men, returning the camera to the photojournalist and escorting him away from the scene. Police then erected barriers to keep the media and the public back, reported LI News.
"Unfortunately in the WNBC case, the EMS worker specifically attacked the cameraman, and it is a frightening thing to see the escalation to physical violence," said Phil Datz, a freelance videographer who was filming the scene.
Ironically, Datz was also the cameraman in a separate caught-on-film clash between authorities and journalists in Bohemia a month earlier when a Suffolk County police officer arrested Datz after he attempted to film the scene at the end of a police chase from the side of the road.
Datz’s own footage of the incident shows the officer approach him and repeatedly yell, “go away, go away now.” Datz then moves down the block to resume filming, only to be spotted by the same police officer who gets into his patrol car and speeds down the street to arrest the cameraman.
Stoughton, who is also Datz’s lawyer, said that these two cases are not isolated incidents and that the NYCLU has seen a rise in complaints from other members of the media having similar problems filming in public since the Datz video was released.
Datz also said that these cases are not unusual and that he has other videos of local police restricting media access as recent as the week after his arrest.
"Unfortunately, the Suffolk County [Police] Department has policies in effect that are just not followed," Datz said. "There seems to be some internal discrepancies over how the department handles the media."
The Long Island Press reported that Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said that the department is conducting an internal review of the incident leading to Datz's arrest and that they will be reviewing the department's policy concerning the news media. The department's current policy states that bystanders, including the media, are permitted to observe and record police incidents outside police lines, provided they do not violate compromise the safety or outcome of the activity or violate the privacy of those involved.
Stoughton said that the Suffolk County Police Department has agreed to meet with her and her client. She added that they may file a civil complaint against the officer, but that no claim related to the case has been filed yet.
"I would hope that these incidents being brought to light will help show a pattern and that there will be further education so that future incidents can be stopped," said Datz.
The right to film police in the performance of their public duties has been the subject of debate across the U.S. as police harassment and arrests for such activities has been on the rise.
In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) ruled that this kind of filming is a “basic and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment,” in a case involving a complaint filed by a Boston man who filmed the scene of an October 2007 arrest on his cell phone, only to be arrested himself and charged with a violation of Massachusetts wiretapping laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also published a guide, “Know Your Rights: Photographers” explaining the rights and considerations for filming in public places.