Under arrest for journalism

Posted: April 20, 2012

Temple student Ian Van Kuyk was arraigned this week on charges of obstruction, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Van Kuyk, a film and media arts major, was arrested by Philadelphia police last month after he photographed a routine traffic stop in front of his apartment building for a photojournalism course. Asserting his First Amendment right to record police activity in public, Van Kuyk had refused when officers asked him to stop taking pictures.

The officers allegedly pushed, shoved, and threw Van Kuyk to the ground before handcuffing him. Van Kuyk’s girlfriend, who tried to rescue his camera, was also charged with obstruction and disorderly conduct.

The National Press Photographers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have shown appropriate interest in the case.

“There is no excuse for your officers to intentionally disregard a citizen’s right to photograph an event occurring in a public place,” Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel to the photographers’ association, wrote in a letter to Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey last month, the Student Press Law Center reported. “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.”

A Temple News editorial also condemned the arrest, calling it a “blatant abuse of power” that showed “disregard for freedom of speech.”

In September, Ramsey issued a memo clarifying the department’s policy on photographing and videotaping of officers. It said officers “should reasonably anticipate and expect to be photographed, videotaped and/or be audibly recorded by members of the public,” and should not interfere with members of the public recording them while they are acting in an official capacity.

In a 2005 case, a U.S. district court in Pennsylvania held that there is a free-speech right to film police officers performing their public duties. The case concerned a man who had videotaped state troopers conducting truck inspections without interfering with their activities.

In 1990, a New Hampshire federal court ruled that police officers had violated a freelance reporter’s constitutional rights when they ordered him to leave an accident scene and threatened to arrest him if he continued to take pictures. The court determined that the reporter moved when asked to and did not interfere with police and emergency workers.

In the Philadelphia case, similarly, the Student Press Law Center noted, Van Kuyk “said he never went within 10 feet of the police and even backed off further when officers asked him to.”

The recent explosion of cellphone cameras and social media has effectively created an army of citizen journalists. While the public should be respectful of police and refrain from interfering with their work, officers must not harass citizens engaging in First Amendment-protected activity. The public has a right to photograph police activities in public spaces, and police officers must respect that right.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer, journalist, and adjunct professor at Temple University and Arcadia University. He wrote this on behalf of the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, of which he is a member. His website is www.professorlarry.com.

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