NTSB, state apologize for confiscating camera and film
OHIO–The National Transportation Safety Board and the State of Michigan apologized in mid-July for the seizure of a photographer’s camera and film at an airplane crash site, and agreed to give The (Toledo) Blade $26,000 to settle its lawsuit.
Photographer Herral Long and Blade Communications filed suit in late January in federal District Court in Detroit, contending the officials’ actions violated Long’s constitutional rights and were “an impermissible prior restraint” on The Blade’s free-speech rights.
Peter Goelz, NTSB director of government and public affairs, said in the apology that the federal agency had violated the photographer’s constitutional rights and that the agency’s actions were not authorized by existing federal law, regulations or order.
Long was taking photographs outside a temporary morgue set up in the Custer Airport hangar in Monroe, Mich., covering the aftermath of the crash of Comair Flight 3272, in which all 29 people aboard died in early January. Tom Shepardson, a New York funeral director working at the temporary morgue, told Long he was interfering with a federal investigation.
Michigan state police officers soon approached Long and said he was in a restricted area. The officers then ordered him to turn over his camera and film containing pictures taken in the back of the building where numerous plastic bags and storage containers lay, or he would be detained. Long then surrendered his camera and film.
Shepardson later told The Blade’s managing editor that he had ordered the confiscation based on an October executive order by President Bill Clinton, that he said empowers the NTSB to protect family members of air crashes.
The Blade’s editor said he asked that police not develop the film, but was told that Shepardson had already had the police develop the film and had found its content offensive.
The photographs in question included two frames of a car bumper taken while Long was loading the film and four frames of the back hangar showing red plastic containers, full garbage bags and the trailer portion of a truck labeled “For Storage Only.”
The pictures were returned to Long in February, after the newspaper filed its suit against the National Transportation Safety Board, an NTSB official, two state police officers and the Michigan Chief Medical Examiner.
In the apology, Goelz said that although Shepardson was not an NTSB employee, but rather a private citizen who volunteered his time, the NTSB was responsible for managing the scene and in the future will train the people working at disaster sites so as to not repeat the events.
The NTSB will pay the paper $18,000 and the state of Michigan agreed to pay $8,000. The Blade’s co-publisher and editor-in-chief said $13,000 will go to Long, and an equal amount will be donated to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press. The co-publisher said that because the settlement was “public money,” none of it will be used to pay for the newspaper’s legal fees. (Blade Communications v. National Transportation Safety Board; Media Counsel: Fritz Byers, Toledo)