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Press Groups Join in Letter of Complaint to the Vice President’s Press Office

March 15th, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) today joined with the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) in sending a letter to Ms. Kendra Barkoff, Press Secretary for the Office of the Vice President of the United States. The letter, signed by NPPA president Mike Borland, WHNPA president Ronald Sachs, and RCFP executive director Bruce Brown, was written in response to a March 12 incident in which a journalist covering an event featuring the Vice President in Rockville, Maryland, was ordered by a Vice Presidential staff member to delete all images of the event on his camera.

As reported by the Capitol News Service, Jeremy Barr, a member of the Capitol News Service, a student-staffed news agency run by the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, covered an event discussing domestic violence held by Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. Barr stated that he “unknowingly sat in a section of the crowd designated as a non-press area” because “I didn’t see any demarcation that would have designated a press entrance versus a general entrance.” “The event began and I took a few photos of each speaker,” said Barr, as “people a few rows in front of me were also taking photos.”

According to reports, after the event concluded Barr was approached by Vice Presidential staffer Dana Rosenzweig who asked Barr whether had taken any photos of the event. When Barr responded that he had taken photos, Rosenzweig demanded that Barr delete all images of the event from his iPhone while Rosenzweig watched, telling Barr that by sitting in the non-press area he had gained an unfair advantage over other members of the media who also attended the event. Barr complied with Rosenzweig’s request, stating that “I assumed that I had violated a protocol; I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she was following proper procedures.” Rosenzweig then ordered Barr to wait while she informed her supervisor of the incident, and after a ten minute delay Barr was permitted to leave.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, filed a formal complaint with the Vice President’s press office, stating that “this was pure intimidation,” and that “it’s clear from the circumstance that the journalist did nothing wrong.” Poynter reported that Dalglish stated in her complaint that “Rockville is not a third-world country where police-state style media censorship is expected.” Biden Press Secretary Kendra Barkoff apologized to Barr and Dalglish in separate phone conversations shortly after Dalglish’s complaint was filed. Barkoff told Dalglish that “the incident was a total miscommunication,” stressing that “it is never the press office’s policy to request that reporters delete photos.” Barkoff declined to speak about the incident on the record with the Capitol News Service, and calls to Rosenzweig were not returned.

In the letter to Barkoff the NPPA, WHNPA and RCFP state that “while we commend your office for immediately apologizing . . . we do not believe that such a blatant violation of free press/speech rights protected under the First Amendment should pass without comment.” The letter goes on to cite a May 14, 2012 letter from the Department of Justice to the Baltimore Police Department from a similar case which stated that “Under the First Amendment, there are no circumstances under which the contents of a camera or recording device should be deleted or destroyed.”

The NPPA, WHNPA and RCFP concluded the letter by commenting that “In order to ensure that situations like this one do not ever happen again . . . we would like to meet with members of your staff to discuss “event” coverage from your perspective and ours.” It is the NPPA’s hope that a meeting with the Vice President’s staff will better inform staff members as to the First Amendment rights of photographers and journalists, and will prevent future incidents such as this from occurring again.

Posted in DOJ, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Student, Vice President Press Office, Visual Journalists, White House News Photographers Association, WHNPA | No Comments »

NPPA Works with the New Mexico Dept. of Homeland Security to Amend Its Policies Regarding Photography

March 12th, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

The National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) recently worked with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security (NMDHS) to revise policies regarding photography in its online Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR). NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher was initially alerted to the issue when NPPA member Amanda Emily wrote on the NPPA Facebook page on Feb. 19 about the issue: “If you ever visit New Mexico, don’t bother photographing “historic structures and national landmarks” among other subjects….it’s considered a suspicious worthy of reporting to their fusion center.” This is the original version of the NMDHS SAR policy.

Several NPPA members commented on Ms. Emily’s post, including Osterreicher, who on Feb. 20 sent an email to Mr. George Heidke, General Counsel for the NMDHS, about the NMDHS’s SAR forms. In that email Osterreicher recommended that NMDH modify their SAR to remove both the “Activity (photography) checkbox” as well as the “Q & A” answer directing that “You should immediately report people who photograph, videotape, sketch . . .” which immediately preceded that checkbox because both portions on the SAR form indicated that photography in general constituted a suspicious activity. Osterreicher then quoted from a “Report It Form” issued by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office which describes the appropriate way to address photography in the context of a SAR, and which he also had a part in correcting in 2011:

“These activities are generally First Amendment-protected activities and should not be reported absent articulable facts and circumstances that support the suspicion that the behavior observed is not innocent, but rather reasonably indicative of criminal activity associated with terrorism or other crimes, including evidence of pre-operational planning related to terrorism. Race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious affiliation should not be considered as factors that create suspicion (although these factors may be used as specific suspect descriptions).”

In his email, Osterreicher also pointed to a FPS (Federal Protective Service) bulletin which recognizes the First Amendment rights of photographers to take photographs of federal buildings unless such activity gives rise to a reasonable concern of suspicious activity. He then said, “photography by itself is not a suspicious activity and is protected by the First Amendment.” “Unfortunately the reliance by law enforcement officers to question, detain and interfere with lawful activities by photographers under the guise of preventing terrorist activities has become a daily occurrence, ” he added. “The abridgement of a constitutionally protected activity because of that erroneous belief is only reinforced by your specific reference to photography as possibly being part of some sinister act.” Osterreicher concluded the email by again urging Mr. Heidke to consider amending the NMDHS SAR form to remove its references to photography.

In a not too surprising coincidence, world-reknowned photojournalist David Burnett also wrote to Robert McGee, Chief Information Officer for NMDHS, stating his concerns over “the potential for extremely negative backlash which the public might feel, based on the . . . guidelines such as they are outlined on your website.”  “Photography is not a crime,” he went on, adding “those of us who carry cameras on a daily basis have to deal with the increased sense of paranoia, and often ill-conceived reactions by much of the public over something as simple as taking a photograph of a historic landmark building, or a natural wonder.  In fact, let’s be honest, the world at large would hardly  know of any of the wonders of New Mexico were it not for the photographs which have become iconic in their own way, over the years.”

Burnett pointed out that “photography remains a passion for millions of Americans (and others), and the artistic expression through which we see the world with our cameras is unquestionably one of the great visual joys of our time.  I fear that in an attempt to rally public interest in protecting society at large, you may have put at risk something which provides a great deal of joy , and which no doubt through commerce and tourism, add a great deal of benefit to New Mexico,” concluding with a plea to “reconsider the manner in which you seek to engage the public re: ‘suspicious activity’  as we all want to live in a safe environment, but to do so at the cost of being suspected as ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ for merely engaging our right to take photographs, is something which in the end does not properly serve the public at large.” Burnett also shared copied Osterreicher on his email.

NPPA is pleased to report that on March 6, Osterreicher received an email from Mr. Heidke which stated: “The Department has concluded its review of the SAR instructions and has posted new guidelines on its website. We appreciate your comments. Thank you.” “This incident serves as a reminder that everyone must remain vigilant to ensure that these types of postings are corrected to avoid the chilling effect they have on our First Amendment rights,” Osterreicher said. The communications between the two attorneys also show the ability of NPPA to contact and work with law enforcement and other government agencies in a positive, instructive manner to help improve relationships between photographers and those entities. NPPA encourages its members to communicate such issues as the NMDHS’s old SAR policy to Mr. Osterreicher so that the NPPA can continue its mission of advocating as the voice of visual journalists. The new NMDHS link can be found here and the new form here.

Posted in David Burnett, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, SAR, Suspicious Activity | No Comments »