An award-winning photojournalist faces trespassing charges in Kansas after paragliding over a cattle-filled feedlot on a freelance assignment last month.
Veteran photographer George Steinmetz, known for his bird’s eye images of desert landscapes, was arrested by the local authorities after his motorized paraglider landed near Garden City in western Kansas. He was taking pictures for a series on food for National Geographic Magazine.
Steinmetz’s flying instructor, Wei Zhang, was also arrested. Both were released from jail after each paid a $270 bond.
Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said that Steinmetz and Zhang were arrested not for taking pictures from the air, but for entering private property uninvited before their launch.
“There’s no laws in Kansas that govern somebody flying over property,” he said. “This was a ground trespass. They drove their vehicle onto private property that was clearly marked.”
Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer for the National Press Photographers Association, said he suspected that the trespassing charges were being used as an indirect method to obstruct Steinmetz’s work.
“As we’ve seen in a lot of these agricultural situations, either business owners or landowners don’t want people bringing to attention whatever’s going on on their property,” he said.
Osterreicher also said that it is not unusual for photographers to be charged with ostensibly unrelated crimes when the real motivation for the arrest is to frustrate photojournalism.
“Almost never will you find someone actually charged with taking photographs, because it’s not against the law to do that,” he said. “They usually have to come up with something else.”
The Office of the County Attorney, however, dismissed concerns about newsgathering rights in a press release.
“Much discussion has ensued surrounding the arrest of Mr. Steinmetz and his employee regarding the right to air space and to take photographs,” the release states. “The charges in no way are related to those two issues and focus on the landowners right to privacy and control over their property.”
In a statement, National Geographic spokeswoman Beth Foster said that the organization believes Steinmetz did not break the law. She added that if Steinmetz and Zhang need legal defense, National Geographic will provide it.
Kansas Livestock Association spokesman Todd Domer told The Associated Press that it is important to protect livestock from outside threats, including trespassers.
"Everyone knows safe food starts with healthy animals," he said. "We have to have those animals healthy in order to produce a safe food supply."
But Osterreicher said that the food-security argument is a "double-edged sword," since journalistic oversight of agriculture can sometimes make food safer.
"Depending on exactly what’s going on there, somebody might be trying to bring food safety issues to light,” he said.
Kansas has a law, the Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act, that criminalizes entering a livestock facility to take pictures “with the intent to damage the enterprise.” The statute, enacted in 1990, is the oldest example of what critics call “ag gag” laws.
The Finney County authorities did not cite that law as a reason for Steinmetz’s arrest.
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