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Reality check

In my 30-plus years of working as a journalist and media lawyer, I’ve never hesitated to advise a reporter or…

In my 30-plus years of working as a journalist and media lawyer, I’ve never hesitated to advise a reporter or photographer that she can report, photograph or record while in a place open to the public. Not only is it common sense; it’s the law.

But for some reason, the Reporters Committee has been swamped in recent months with requests for help from journalists who, while covering a public event in a public place, have been told to turn off audio recorders, to erase digital photo cards or to put their hands behind their back to be cuffed. 

Public officials who prevent journalists from reporting the truth are due a reality check themselves. What happens in a public place is the public’s business. 

In the Winter 2012 edition of The News Media & The Law, I discussed the outrageous Illinois statute that makes it a felony for citizens to audio record police in the course of their public duties. In an extremely smart move, the Chicago Police announced in April that it would not enforce the statute during the NATO Summit, which is occurring as I write this column. In addition, the U.S. Court of Appeals (7th Cir.) ruled in early May that the statute could not be enforced against a special American Civil Liberties Union police monitoring project. 

Of course, none of this prevents journalists from being swept up in arrests while covering protests. But at least the chance the public will be charged with a felony in Illinois for audio recording police activity during those protests is now slim. 

Common sense has not yet prevailed in Florida and New York, where lawmakers introduced bills that would make it a crime to photograph or videotape farm animals and agricultural facilities, even if the photographer was taking photographs of farm animals while standing on a public road. While neither of these statutes appear to be going anywhere this legislative session, they are among a collection of laws described in our “Ag-gag” cover story package. 

The gag laws, which are aimed at “whistleblowers” who attempt to point out alleged wrongdoing in the agriculture industry, typically make it illegal to falsify employment applications for jobs on farms or to trespass on private farm property while photographing and recording. Laws that essentially prohibit trespassing on private property are more likely to pass constitutional muster than those that prohibit photography while on public property. But the question remains: How else are journalists, activists, and whistleblowing employees supposed to document farm animal abuse and unsafe food-handling practices? 

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Finally, a personal note. 

For the past 12 years, I have been privileged to help protect the rights of America’s journalists to gather and publish the truth and to protect the public’s right to know. At the time I started in January 2000, I could not have imagined the depth of feeling I have for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 

On August 1, I will become Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. While I’ll still be working inside the Washington beltway, academia will present a challenging and interesting new life. 

Among the joys of serving as executive director of the Reporters Committee has been the opportunity I’ve had to hire and mentor nearly 40 young legal fellows, a dozen journalism fellows and more than 100 journalism and law student interns. When I attend a legal or journalism conference and see the eager, excited faces of our alumni in the audience, I know we’ve had an impact.

The 30-member Reporters Committee steering committee has worked for 42 years on behalf of journalists across the country. Their guidance and friendship have made my professional and personal life better. I offer special thanks to those who have served my entire tenure: John Henry, Tony Mauro, Chip Bok, Rick Dunham, co-founder Fred Graham, Scott Applewhite, Nat Hentoff, Saundra Torry, Cristine Russell and Dan Rather. I also was fortunate to work with the late Jack Nelson, whose dedication to the organization got the Reporters Committee out of more than one financial pickle over the last four decades.

Dozens of journalists, lawyers and support staff have cycled through these offices and I am grateful to them all for their contributions. But I was privileged to work with several dedicated staff members for more than a decade. They gave tirelessly of themselves, supported me through a scary battle with cancer and laughed at my jokes. I owe a special thank you to Gregg Leslie, Lois Lloyd, Victor Gaberman and Maria Gowen. I will miss you every day.