A photojournalism student was charged with obstruction of justice and resisting arrest after photographing Philadelphia police officers who made a traffic stop outside of his home. Temple University junior Ian Van Kuyk was allegedly thrown to the ground and arrested while taking photographs of police for a class assignment.
On Friday, the National Press Photographers Association sent a letter to the Philadelphia police commissioner that stated, "any police officer should know that photography on a public street is a First Amendment protected activity."
"There is no excuse for your officers to intentionally disregard a citizen's right to photograph an event occurring in public space," Mickey Osterreicher, legal counsel for the photographers association wrote in the letter. "Law enforcement agencies are established to uphold and enforce existing laws not to use them as a pretext to punish someone exercising their free speech right to photograph in public, in blatant violation of the First and Fourth Amendments."
The police department declined to comment due to an open internal investigation, but the department established guidelines in September to clear up any confusion as to how police officers may respond to photography and videotaping of their public conduct.
According to a department memo, "all police personnel, while conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space, should reasonably anticipate and expect to be photographed, videotaped and/or be audibly recorded by members of the general public or individuals temporarily detained." The memo ordered officers to not interfere with the photographing, videotaping or audio recording.
Courts across the country disagree on the extent to which the First Amendment creates a general right to record police activity in public.
While the question has been raised in the federal courts of the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, the court has not ruled directly to clearly establish a person's right to photograph law enforcement, said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
On March 14, Van Kuyk and his girlfriend were sitting on their front porch when police made a traffic stop further down the block. To fulfill an assignment for a photography class, Van Kuyk grabbed a school-owned camera and started taking photographs of the incident from across the street. The college student crossed the street to get a closer shot and went unnoticed by the officers at first, Van Kuyk said. When ordered to back away from the scene, he complied.
Van Kuyk, of Wilkes Barre, Pa., continued to take photographs and was approached by an officer who started "aggressively pushing him", he said. The student stated his right to photograph on a public street to the officer, but was thrown to the ground and arrested. Van Kuyk's girlfriend, Megan Feighan, attempted to retrieve his camera and was pushed against a patrol car and also arrested, he said. They were both transported to a nearby police station, but Feighan was later moved to another station. Van Kuyk was held overnight for nearly 24 hours and Feighan was released after more than 18 hours in police custody.
According to court documents Van Kuyk and Feighan were charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. Additionally, police charged Van Kuyk with resisting arrest. He is scheduled to appear in court on April 16.
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