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Reporters on the job continue to encounter official roadblocks

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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 54.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 54.

News photographers must cover newsworthy events while staying within the boundaries of the law. In Ohio and Vermont, two photographers encountered trouble at emergency scenes. A photographer in Florida was cleared of trespassing following an attempt by police to stop him from taking pictures from a sidewalk. And in Wisconsin, a political aide faced criminal charges after a scuffle with a television news photographer.

Reporters had similar troubles in pursuit of their stories. A federal court in Puerto Rico denied immunity to reporters who trespassed on a military installation. In Pennsylvania, police arrested a reporter while she tried to obtain a police report. In Alabama, an angry city attorney resigned after he harassed a reporter from a television station.

Arrests for trespassing on Puerto Rico military installation do not violate First Amendment

The First Amendment does not protect journalists who were arrested last June for trespassing on a military installation, a federal district court ruled in November 2000.

In its ruling, the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico denied the request of 10 reporters to dismiss the criminal charges. The reporters argued that their arrests violated the First Amendment because they trespassed onto the installation to cover a protest. The reporters asked the court to recognize the “special circumstances” that led to their presence at Camp Garcia, a U.S. Navy installation on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

However, the court found that the federal trespassing statute also applied to the press. Citing Supreme Court case law, the court held that the reporters had no constitutional right of special access to the installation that was not available to the public.

“Unfortunately for Defendants, ample Supreme Court precedent makes it pellucid that the foundational principle of freedom of the press does not support the edifice that Defendants here attempt to construct: freedom of the press to violate the law,” the court said.

Last year, Camp Garcia drew hundreds of protestors against U.S. Navy training and bombing exercises conducted at the camp. (United States v. Maldonado-Norat)

Vermont photographer arrested at accident scene after attempting to rescue victims

Vermont state police arrested a freelance photographer on March 23 for refusing to remove her car from the scene of a traffic accident where she tried to save two victims.

Anne Donahue, a photographer and editor of a quarterly mental health newspaper, will be arraigned on May 14 on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and failure to obey a police officer.

During a snowstorm, Donahue approached an accident in Bethel involving a car and tractor-trailer. Once trained as an EMT, she administered CPR to one of the victims and tried to stabilize another. After the paramedics and police arrived, Donahue returned to her car to get her camera and take photos of the incident.

“It was kind of like a switch flipping in my mind,” she said. “I had done my part in trying to help in the rescue, so it was a revert to ‘now I’m journalist again.'”

Donahue said a state trooper told her several times to move her vehicle because it was creating a hazard on the icy road. Since moving the car would have required making a 22-mile loop to the next exit, Donahue refused. The trooper told her he would have the car ticketed and towed.

After the sergeant’s warning, Donahue said she tried to take their pictures, but the trooper knocked the camera out of her hand. Police returned the camera upon her release and did not confiscate the film.

“My first concern was whether they had removed the film or touched it,” she said.

Donahue has vowed to fight the charges.

Wisconsin political aide pleads guilty to disorderly conduct charge

A state legislative aide accused of harassing a news cameraman at the capitol building in Madison, Wis., pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct on April 25.

Steve Baas, communications director for Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, was referred to a first offenders program for his actions inside the state Capitol on Jan. 30. Steve Cady, a cameraman for WBAY-TV in Green Bay, claimed Baas collared him by the necktie while he and a reporter attempted to interview another Jensen aide.

Cady claimed Baas spun him around by his necktie and let go of him only when Cady shouted that he captured the incident on videotape. Baas said he tried to move Cady from blocking the hallway and claimed Cady tried to hit him during the confrontation. After the incident, Cady said the videotape exonerated him from Baas’ claims.

In accepting a plea agreement, the misdemeanor charge will be expunged from Baas’ record after he completes the first offenders program. Baas will not have to serve jail time or pay a fine.

Although she did not file a complaint, reporter Natalie Arnold said in an interview with The Green Bay News-Chronicle that other Jensen staff members “manhandled” her by shoving her against the wall in an attempt to prevent the interview.

The scuffle occurred when Cady and Arnold went to the Capitol to question R. J. Pirlot, another aide to Speaker Jensen, about his involvement in a campaign against state Rep. Lee Meyerhofer (D-Kaukauna). WBAY News has been investigating allegations that Pirlot anonymously provided court transcripts to an independent campaign group. The group has been accused of producing a campaign radio spot that portrayed Meyerhofer as a “wife-beater.” (City of Madison v. Baas)

Charges dropped against Pennsylvania reporter in police report dispute

A Pittsburgh reporter on April 18 had a disorderly conduct charge against her dismissed by a district magistrate. The charge was the result of the reporter’s February arrest at a police station in a dispute over access to a police report.

Wilkinsburg, Pa., police on Feb. 22 handcuffed and detained Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter M. Ferguson Tinsley in a back office after Tinsley asked repeatedly for the report. When her request was denied, police arrested her after she refused to leave the station.

Tinsley said the magistrate’s ruling was valuable because it acknowledged the issue of free access to information.

“I hope it has farther reaching effects,” Tinsley said.

Tinsley had gone to the station to follow up on a story she reported about a Wilkinsburg officer who was injured during a traffic stop. She was told the report would not be ready until reviewed by acting Police Chief Harvey Adams. Tinsley said Adams told her the report would be available that morning.

When the reporter refused to leave the station, a police lieutenant and detective grabbed her by the arms and tried to move her toward the door before arresting her, Tinsley told the Post-Gazette.

Birmingham city attorney resigns over incident with WBRC-TV reporter

A city council attorney apologized and resigned in October 2000 after verbally assaulting WBRC anchor Cynthia Gould at Birmingham, Ala., City Hall.

After a council meeting on Oct. 17, David Choy approached Gould while she conducted an interview. Shouting obscenities, Choy lunged at Gould and had to be escorted into another room.

“He totally lost control,” said Gould, who decided not to press charges. The station filed a complaint with the Birmingham Bar Association.

A year-long feud between the mayor’s office and city council over control of assets from the city’s water system sparked Choy’s tirade. Angry with the station’s coverage of the dispute, Choy lashed out at Gould when he heard her asking about insulting statements Choy allegedly made about Birmingham’s citizens.

According to Gould, Choy never previously complained about the station’s coverage.

“He never said one negative thing about us, as far as I know, before this,” she said.

Internal police report finds Florida photographer’s arrest improper

An internal investigation by the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., police department found that an officer acted inappropriately when he arrested news photographer Joshua Prezant for trespassing, but the February report concluded Prezant could have been arrested for disorderly conduct. Prezant learned of the findings in March.

“I’m satisfied that it came to light that I was not trespassing when I repeatedly said I wasn’t,” the photographer said in an April 11 interview.

The incident occurred on a public sidewalk last August when Prezant refused to stop photographing an office building in Ft. Lauderdale while on an assignment for the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. (See NM&L, Winter 2001)

The officer, Anthony Castro, received a “non-disciplinary” letter in his file for “failure to know a law or ordinance which an officer or employee is sworn to uphold.”

Ft. Lauderdale police did not return calls seeking comment on the finding.

Prezant also claimed Castro used excessive force, vulgar language and refused to give his name and badge number. But after testimony from three police officers who witnessed the incident, police investigators found insufficient evidence to sustain the other allegations.

“He’s not being punished for handling the situation wrongly,” Prezant said.

Criminal charges dropped against Ohio photographer

Criminal charges against a newspaper photographer who was arrested at a fire scene were dropped on the morning of his March 23 trial.

Herral Long, a photographer for the Toledo Blade, pleaded not guilty in February to a charge of misconduct at an emergency scene after police arrested him at a fire in downtown Tiffin, Ohio, on Jan. 9. (See NM&L, Winter 2001)

Police had accused Long of crossing the caution tape at the scene and refusing to leave the area when asked. Long had denied the charges. — ML