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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 43.

From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 43.

While heightened sensitivity to “homeland security” has prompted a nationwide effort to restrict photography, Eugene Mopsik of the American Society of Media Photographers acknowledges that some rules may be justified.

In late June, for example, the U.S. government expelled two security guards from Iran’s United Nations Mission, located in New York City, after they were seen photographing and videotaping city landmarks, including part of the subway and other transportation systems.

It was the third time the United States had ordered the expulsion of Iranian security guards for photographing “sensitive” locations in New York, according to Adam Ereli, a deputy spokesman for the State Department. Ereli said photographing and filming New York’s landmarks and infrastructures was “inconsistent with (the guards’) official duties.”

Mortezza Ramandi, the press attaché for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, issued a statement confirming the guards’ departure and denying that they “ever took any photos of anything of a security or sensitive nature.”

“The guards in question never failed to observe any ‘no photography signs, and the videotapes and photos they shot consisted of obvious and popular tourist attractions in New York City, which are of interest to any visitors in the city, such as the Central Park, museums, parades and the like,” Ramandi said.

When two high school journalists in northern Virginia were stopped May 11 for photographing police officers searching a car near their school, a similar lack of posted restrictions existed. Even after Annandale High School seniors Paul Gleason and Kyle Seallie identified themselves as reporters for The A-Blast, the school’s student newspaper, an officer still confiscated their digital camera and deleted 12 photographs.

The two students immediately called their newspaper advisor, who, along with the school’s principal, brought their First Amendment grievances to officials of the Fairfax Police Department. Within days, the department issued a formal apology and worked with the students to retrieve the deleted images.

“They definitely took our case very seriously,” said Gleason, the newspaper’s editor. “When it originally happened, we felt we were being treated like kids, not real journalists.”

But even “real journalists” are often denied their rights. A week after Gleason and Seallie had their run-in with police, a Wisconsin photographer for The (Madison) Capital Times was allegedly attacked by a Stoughton, Wis., firefighter while attempting to report on a motorcycle accident.

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.

When photographer Michelle Stocker refused to stop taking pictures of the accident victims, Assistant Fire Chief Melvin Benschop physically confronted her. 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.

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.

According to Dave Zweifel, the newspaper’s editor, attorneys for The Capital Times are in the process of determining the appropriate action to take. They have demanded that the fire department issue a formal apology to Stocker and agree to undergo training on the media’s rights at emergency scenes.

“We have made it clear that unless [there is] an admission that to push the camera in the face of the photographer was wrong, we will file charges with the district attorney of Dane County,” Zweifel said.

“What I hope to do with this is at least educate fire and police departments that there is a First Amendment,” he added.

As of mid-July, the newspaper was still waiting for an official response.