Skip to content

Reporters encounter on-the-job harassment, arrests

Post categories

  1. Newsgathering
From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.

Journalists face obstacles every day on assignment and sometimes end up arrested or harassed. Two international journalists were arrested for covering a Greenpeace protest, a reporter was put on probation for trespassing, a New York freelancer fought his 11th prosecution and a coroner in Pennsylvania threatened a photographer over shots she took.

But sometimes there’s a hopeful side, the Los Angeles Police Department reached a settlement with seven journalists assaulted and arrested at the 2001 Democratic Convention. The agreement requires police officials to draft a policy that recognizes that the media has the right to cover public assemblies, even if they are unlawful.


Journalists arrested in Greenpeace protest

Two journalists arrested last July at an air force base in Southern California along with 15 protesters for Greenpeace face conspiracy charges after a missile test was delayed.

The international protesters were arrested for entering a restricted area at Vandenberg Air Force base.

The two journalists, Stephen Fitzpatrick Morgan, a photographer from the United Kingdom, and Jorge Torres, a videographer from Spain, were documenting the protesting of a Star Wars missile defense test.

Base officials said the protesting delayed the test. The protesters and the journalists were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to violate a safety zone.”

If found guilty, they face up to six years in prison and fines of $250,000. The group pleaded not guilty, and a trial was sent for Nov. 20.

According to Bruno Rebelle, director of Greenpeace France, “the photographer and videographer were present simply to do their jobs as independent witnesses.”

The group was let out on bail but told not to leave the country. According to a press officer for Greenpeace, the foreign nationals will be in court later this month to request permission to return to their own countries.

Morgan is an independent photographer, and Torres works for the Mercury Press International in California.

Torres was hired by both Greenpeace and Mercury Press to cover the protest.


Reporter gets community service sentence for trespassing charge

A former Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger reporter received one year of probation, 50 hours of community service and an order to stay away from a Northern Virginia high school after being arrested for trespassing.

Kelly Campbell pleaded not guilty in Prince William County Court on Sept. 14, after receiving advice that if the court heard the evidence they would find her guilty.

Campbell was arrested on June 6 at Woodbridge High School after an interview with principal Karen Spillman ended abruptly. Campbell said she was asking Spillman about a hotly debated biology experiment taking place at the high school, involving students who were assigned to care for baby ducks.

“I was trying to reach an assistant principal by phone but I was unable to,” Campbell said. “I asked the school if I could come down, and they told me I could. The principal said she would talk to me.”

When Campbell asked Spillman for the name of the biology teacher conducting the experiment, the principal halted the interview.

“I sat there in shock when she said the interview was over,” Campbell said. “It’s a timing issue and overreacting issue instead of a trespassing issue. It’s not like I was staging a sit-in.”

The charge of misdemeanor criminal trespassing will be dropped if Campbell performs 50 hours of community service, pays $50 in court costs, stays off Woodbridge High School property for one year and maintains good behavior.

Two weeks after the incident Campbell moved to New Jersey to work as a reporter for the Press of the Atlantic, where she had accepted a job prior to her arrest.


Buffalo writer wins harassment case

A free-lance journalist based in Buffalo, N.Y., survived his 11th prosecution in four years after a state judge threw out a variety of harassment charges against him.

Richard Kern faced charges of harassment, stalking and aggravated harassment in his coverage of Charles J. Flynn, chairman of the Erie County Independence Party and director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. Kern was alleged to have barraged Flynn with repeated phone calls, faxes and personal confrontations at Flynn’s home and work for more than a year.

Kern claims he was working on a story. Michael Kuzma, Kern’s attorney, said his client believes public officials are trying to avoid tough reporting and hard questioning.

The judge threw the case out on Sept. 7 on the grounds that the charges were legally insufficient because they could not prove Kern had an intent to engage in “faxual harassment” and other charged activities.

This was the 11th prosecution Kern faced over the past four years, and the 11th dismissal, according to his attorney. Kern has faced similar misdemeanor charges, including burglary and harassment, filed by other members of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and Buffalo Niagara District Council.

Kern returned to court on Oct. 9 to ask a federal judge to permanently bar District Attorney Frank J. Clark and his prosecutorial staff from pursuing further action against him. The judge plans to issue a written decision.


Pennsylvania newspaper refuses to surrender camera to coroner

Editors for an Easton, Penn., newspaper refused to give up a camera to a county coroner on Aug. 26, when officials demanded that a photographer stop taking pictures of an exposed dead body.

Sue Beyer, a 23-year veteran photographer for the Express-Times, snapped shots of a drowned body as authorities pulled it from Bushkill Creek in Northampton County. Jay Gilbert, a deputy coroner for the county asked Beyer to hand her camera over to police.

Beyer refused, saying police officers had given her permission to stand at the creek and take pictures.

“He wanted to hold my camera until the next day, then he wanted the film, he wanted to see the photos and then they wanted to delete them,” Beyer said. “I wasn’t going to delete the photos unless Editor Joseph P. Owens told me I could.”

Beyer tried to explain to Gilbert that she had no say in what photos were used. She told him it was an editorial decision. As a disagreement began, police ordered Beyer to drive to the other side of Bushkill Creek to talk to the coroner. She locked the camera in the car and called her editor.

Gilbert explained that county coroner Zachary Lysek had a rule that forbids taking pictures of an uncovered dead body. Beyer said Tony Rhodin, the paper’s assistant managing editor, argued with the deputy claiming the First Amendment superseded the “Lysek Rule.”

Beyer felt the pictures she took were too gruesome. She decided to stay to get more pictures of the body once it was pulled from the water and covered.

“The paper published the photo with the body covered up, which is what we normally do,” she said.

But Beyer said she wasn’t about to give the camera away.

“I had a full day’s work on the camera,” she said. “There was no way I was going to give it up.”


Journalists, LAPD reach settlement

The Los Angeles City Council agreed on Sept. 26 to pay $60,000 to seven journalists who were struck by police breaking up a protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August 2000. (See NM&L, Fall 2000)

The lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department alleged that the police officers violated journalists’ constitutional rights when they broke up the crowd of protesters outside the convention. The lawsuit stressed that the First Amendment requires the press to have meaningful access to emergency scenes or protests.

The settlement conditions require the LAPD to institute a policy that recognizes that the media has the right to cover public assemblies, even if they are unlawful. Police officials and American Civil Liberties Union attorney Peter Eliasberg are working on a policy that ensures the media can report on events free from police interruptions.

The group of journalists, which included veteran television consumer reporter David Horowitz, were injured when police shot several of them with rubber bullets and beat others with sticks. Horowitz was knocked down and kicked by police while trying to identify himself as a member of the press. — HP

Stay informed by signing up for our mailing list

Keep up with our work by signing up to receive our monthly newsletter. We'll send you updates about the cases we're doing with journalists, news organizations, and documentary filmmakers working to keep you informed.