Journalists can be real jerks when it comes to what they are assigned to cover. The more experience you have, the higher stakes of the stories you cover. For example, have you seen Wolf Blitzer cover a car accident, lately?
I feel the same way – making me a jerk, too – so when I happened upon a serious car accident on the way home, I thought “what the hell”? It looked interesting enough. The front end of one car was perched in the front seat, while the trailer of the other car (which was broadsided) had been sheared off at the point of impact.
I stopped, pulled out my camera and press credentials (worn in plain view) and began photographing the accident. Within about 30-seconds Lieutenant Garrison (Badge# 94734) was walking toward me “ordering” me to stop taking pictures. I identified myself as a member of the press (politely) and was promptly told that if I didn’t exit the scene right away I would be charged with obstruction of justice. I argued my case and was met with a cop right in my face and another threat of arrest.
I continued to argue that Garrison had no right to order a member of the press to stop documenting the scene of an accident. He then told me that the reason I couldn’t was that it may be the scene of a crime. All the more reason to document the scene! He wasn’t having it, though, and was seconds from laying hands on me.
As I walked away I warned him verbally about the seriousness of what he was doing, and promptly called the public information officer at LCSO HQ. I explained the situation and was told I would be called back after he had spoken to the Lieutenant on the phone.
Five minutes later, my phone rang again. Not surprisingly, the PIO took the officer’s side. I argued my case, but it was clear there was no budging to be had and made an appointment to meet with the senior PIO this week.
It’s alarming how often this happens across the country, and unfortunately it’s often journalists without adequate experience to defend their presence on scenes such as this.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Garrison violated my First and Fourth Amendment rights, particularly as a journalist by: 1) threatening to charge me with a crime for carrying out my duties as a journalist, and 2) forcing me to cease photographing the accident scene.
There needs to be more awareness, but within law enforcement agencies and newsroom as to just what our rights are when “at large.” One way to do this is to join the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The SPJ offer free legal counsel and advice on a number of issues along with a host of other services.
It’s unfortunate, but this isn’t an isolated incident. Look around on YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of videos that have been taken of the police breaking the law to intimidate journalists. This isn’t Nigeria, or North Korea. This is the United States of America, where we’re supposed to be free from such abuse of office and of the founding documents of this country.
The police will, of course, always stand with each other. Calling the PIO was really just to let Garrison know I was no dummy. It accomplished nothing because the PIO agreed I should not be on scene (though he cited danger as the reason). Bullshit. I’ve been in hundreds of dangerous situations.
I’ll keep you, dear reader, up to date as this unfolds. I will probably start with educating the PIO and Garrison in the details of the First and Fourth Amendments.
For now, I’m just happy to be working on things that are at my “level” of experience, and not taking pictures of car accidents and grass fires.
NOTE: There are great lessons to be learned from covering these sorts of stories, and that is why it is generally junior staff who do so (or the public). My intent is not to denigrate, but to offer the context in which I found myself.