June 13th, 2013 by Wills Citty and tagged Access, Arrest, California Department of Parks and Recreation, first amendment, free speech, journalism, law, Legal, Mickey Osterreicher, national press photographers association, NPPA, photographers, photography, photojournalism, photojournalist, recording, Southern California Edison, trespassing, video
A month after being notified the California Department of Parks and Recreation has responded to a letter sent by NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher regarding an incident during which parks employees detained a news crew and ordered them to delete their footage. KGTV Team 10 reporter Mitch Blacher and photojournalist Arie Thanasoulis were on public property at San Onofre State Beach on April 29, 2013 shooting footage for a story on the San Onofre Nuclear power plant when they were approached by a parks employee who accused them of trespassing, blocked their vehicle and ordered them to stop recording.
That employee, later identified as Bob Warman, then called State Parks Police Officer Ennio Rocca who arrived and also proceeded to harass and threaten to arrest the pair for doing nothing more than recording video of the plant from an area open to the public. Officer Rocca in turn called an unidentified employee of Southern California Edison, who arrived on the scene dressed in full SWAT gear. The three of them then ordered the crew to delete whatever video they had already shot under threat of arrest.While the trio claimed the news crew was standing on private property, the “no trespassing” sign they referred to turned out to be for “no parking,” while a fisherman and a woman walking her dog are visible in video footage in an area they alleged was “secure.” Although the news crew complied with the unreasonable demand and deleted a file containing the footage they were able to broadcast a story using video contained on a second file.
In his letter Osterreicher called the actions of the parks officers “a clear violation of the First and Fourth Amendments.” “It is one thing for officers to act when there is probable cause, Osterreicher wrote, “it is quite another to abuse that discretion in order to create a climate that infringes upon free speech under the pretext of safety and security.” He requested that the “matter be fully investigated and the employees properly disciplined if so indicated.” Osterreicher also advised the department by email of another incident that occurred on May 14, 2103 involving its officers, who detained and questioned two other photographers, JC Playford and Gerry Nance, filming near the power plant gate.
Responding to the NPPA, California Department of Parks & Recreation Chief Counsel Claire LeFlore agreed that the officers had overstepped their bounds. “In hindsight, they may have acted with an overabundance of caution while detaining the news crew,” LeFlore said, “but there was never an intention to violate anyone’s constitutional rights.” LeFlore noted that the incident came shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, and at that “staff was on high alert for the possibility of additional terrorist actions.” Osterreicher responded to that statement in a subsequent interview, saying, “it is indeed unfortunate that well-meaning people still somehow equate an act of terrorism with photography.” “In the Boston tragedy it should be duly noted that law enforcement requested anyone who had pictures or video of the event provide them voluntarily – not delete them,” he added.
The importance of defending sensitive targets is well understood, but, as Osterreicher noted, “in any free country the balance between actual vigilance and over-zealous enforcement is delicate.” LeFlore says all personnel involved in the incident have been counseled on how to properly deal with the press “so that First Amendment rights can be protected and both the press and [parks] staff can carry out their functions with minimal interference with each other.” Officers have also been counseled that there is no legal basis for the seizure or destruction of photographs or video.
Osterreicher also sent copies of his letter to officials from Southern California Edison, the owners of the plant but received no response. In its report 10News quoted a spokeswoman for the utility, as saying, “a security officer ‘responded conservatively when he indicated to a television crew his preference that they stop filming and delete their video.’” Osterreicher also responded to that statement, “Indicating a preference that someone stop filming is a far cry from illegally ordering someone to do so under threat of arrest.” “Aside from being factually incorrect, the arrogance of Southern California Edison in their failure to respond to our letter, unrepentant statements to KGTV and behavior of their employees speaks for itself,” he concluded.
The NPPA has offered to work with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to improve their guidelines and training regarding these matters in order to avoid similar situations. The parks department says it will consider NPPA suggestions in implementing an expanded staff training program.
KGTV reporter Mitch Blacher said in an email, “It is encouraging to see the California state parks police work to remedy the oppression of constitutional rights by their officers,” adding, “As American citizens and working journalists our treatment was highly troubling.” “More questions need to be asked as to why California parks police and staff followed the direction of non-sworn private security personnel instead of the federal and state constitutions they swore an oath to uphold.” 1oNews Special Projects Executive Producer Ellen McGregor added, “As a manager behind-the-scenes, who talked for quite some time on the phone with parks police that day, Mickey’s offer train the agencies on the First and Fourth Amendments proves the NPPA’s commitment to a free press, and the journalists at KGTV are grateful.”
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