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Federal “Suspicious Activity” Reporting Initiative Threatens First Amendment Rights

September 20th, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“I observed a male nonchalantly taking numerous pictures inside a purple-line train.”

If this excerpt from a Federal “Tip and Lead” report out of Los Angeles doesn’t necessarily convince you that a crime is afoot then you’re probably not alone.  Nonetheless, that photographer, and many others like him, are now in a federal database under a plan to single out people who may be planning terrorist activity

The problem with the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SARI) is that many of the activities it targets seem well, unsuspicious.  Worse yet, many of those questioned under the program were engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.  Despite revisions to try to improve the program, people are still being added to the database who appear to have been doing nothing wrong.  The offense of a man recently added to the database: being “very unfriendly.”  Another was reported for buying a large quantity of cigarettes.  Both individuals were of Middle Eastern decent.  While the language initiative specifically prohibits racial profiling, a cursory investigation of what files are available suggests people are occasionally targeted for their race.   The measure also appears to have the effect, intended or otherwise, of targeting photographers in particular.

Today, in a continued effort to raise awareness of the program and improve its operational standards, the ACLU released a series of the federally collected reports online.  The NPPA joined the ACLU and 25 other organizations in a letter demanding reform. The groups also held a press conference in San Francisco addressing the impact of Suspicious Activity Reporting (“SAR”).

One of the central issues with the SAR initiative stems from confusion over what behavior falls within the programs purview.  The 2009 revised standard for the Director of National Intelligence Information Sharing Environment (ISE), one of a pair of programs that make up the initiative, defines suspicious behavior as observable actions “reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity.”  Further, the revision makes clear that “the same constitutional standards that apply when conducting ordinary criminal investigations also apply to local law enforcement and homeland security officers conducting SAR inquiries.”  The media groups applauded this as an improvement over previous versions of the program, but note that “the failure to clearly state that ISE policy did not authorize the collection, retention or dissemination of personally identifiable information in violation of federal regulations . . . has led to confusion and abuse.”

In addition, The FBI’s eGuardian program, the other arm of the initiative, does not meet the higher standards of the ISE.  The continued reporting of non-threatening behavior suggests that this disjoint is one of the causes of the problem.

Today’s letter also observed that “Based on the SARs obtained thus far, photography and videography are frequently reported without additional facts that render these constitutionally-protected activities inherently suspicious. This reporting trend matches anecdotal reports from photographers who frequently complain that they are not only detained and questioned, but are also prevented from taking photographs and video and deprived of their equipment by police.”

The NPPA has been involved with dozens of similar incidents.  They are troublingly common, even without a federal program that enables, if not encourages their occurrence. “As part of the ‘See Something Say Something Program’ the NPPA is deeply concerned that these policies create an unnecessary climate of fear and suspicion throughout the country under the guise of safety and security for otherwise First Amendment protected activity,” said NPPA general counsel Mickey Osterreicher.

Among the reforms suggested in today’s letter, the groups recommended the government “[re]move photography and other activities clearly protected by the First Amendment from inclusion in lists of SAR categories or other guidance criteria to prevent the unlawful stops, detention, and harassment of photographers, videographers, and journalists.”

Such a revision would be a step in the right direction to ensuring valuable First Amendment activities are not illegally obstructed, and that it’s the people who are monitoring the government, and not the other way around.

Posted in Access, ACLU, California, cell phone cameras, Department of Justice, DOJ, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Photography, Recording, SAR, Street Photography, Suspicious Activity, video cameras, Visual Journalists | No Comments »

NPPA Joins Lawsuit Against NYPD

October 22nd, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) announced that it was joining 5 elected officials and almost a dozen members of the press in a lawsuit against the New York Police Department (NYPD) and JP Morgan Chase. The lawsuit alleges that the City of New York, the MTA, the NYPD, Brookfield Properties, and JP Morgan Chase conspired to violate the First Amendment rights of press members who were arrested while covering the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. The amended complaint seeks both redress against police misconduct during these arrests and that a federal independent monitor be appointed to observe future NYPD incidents involving the press.

NPPA joins this lawsuit on behalf of its 7000 members, including Plaintiff Stephanie Keith. Recently awarded the Newswoman of the Year Award by the Newswoman’s Club of New York, Ms. Keith was arrested twice while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. “I joined this lawsuit because as a working journalist I’ve been arrested, thrown to the ground, hit with batons and yelled at by the NYPD while doing my job on assignment” said Ms. Keith. “I have seen my fellow journalists being treated this way as well. Why should journalists be subjected to trauma inducing harassment on the job?”

Sean D. Elliot, President of NPPA, stated that NPPA joined the lawsuit so that “it can effectively address the continuing course of conduct by the NYPD against its members and others that has chilled our Constitutionally protected rights to gather and disseminate news.”

Other plaintiffs in this lawsuit were quick to praise NPPA for joining as a new party. “We are pleased and honored to have the NPPA join our efforts, and we look forward to working with them towards the goals of justice, accountability and freedom of expression,” said Sam Cohen, one of the attorneys at the helm of the case. Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney assisting with the case, remarked that “The NPPA and other members of the press play a vital role in getting the message of OWS out to the world. Arresting the press isn’t just an attempt by the City and JP Morgan Chase to suppress the press and freedom of speech and expression, but also to suppress the message of Occupy.”

Posted in Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, Commissioner Raymond Kelly, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Lawsuit, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, NYPD, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street Arrests, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Recording Police | No Comments »

Charges Against 2 Student Journalists Dropped in Atlanta

October 15th, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Charges against two student journalists arrested while covering the Occupy Atlanta protests last year have finally been dropped. College journalists Alisen Redmond of The Sentinel at Kennesaw State University and Judith Kim of The Signal at Georgia State University were arrested by police on November 5, 2011 on charges of “obstruction of traffic,” even though both women were standing with a group of other media reporters on a street that police had already closed to traffic.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced the decision to drop the charges on October 13 during a conference held by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. When asked why he had failed to address the matter sooner, Reed responded that “he had not heard anything about it in the press or from his assistants.” Upon learning that the charges had been dropped, NPPA General Counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher said, “we applaud the city’s actions and hope this incident will serve as an example to others that it is never too late to make sure that justice is served.”

Osterreicher had sent Mayor Reed a letter on October 1 asking him to dismiss the charges against the students. Among other things, the letter, written on behalf of The American Society of News Editors, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Atlanta Press Club, Cable News Network, Inc., The American Society of Media Photographers and The Student Press Law Center, urged Mayor Reed to “use your good offices to help seek an immediate dismissal of these charges in the interest of justice.”

An even earlier letter from The Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte was sent on November 7, 2011. In that letter LoMonte asked Mayor Reed to “immediately initiate an investigation into the circumstances of these student journalists’ arrests, and that you instruct the Police Department to withdraw all charges against the students and against any journalist whose ‘crime’ consists of standing on public property non-disruptively gathering news.”

NPPA has repeatedly pointed out to numerous groups and law enforcement agencies that actions by officers to interfere with and detain those engaged in Constitutionally protected activity under color of law is wrong. The NPPA has also strongly objected to journalists being harassed, intimidated and arrested while covering news stories because they were not considered to be “properly credentialed” by the police.

Posted in Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, detained, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street Arrests, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Recording Police, Student, students | No Comments »

NPPA, RCFP Keep Journalists Safe During Conventions

September 10th, 2012 by Advocacy Intern and tagged , , , , , ,

John West proudly displays his NPPA affiliation while covering protests during the DNC. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

One could easily imagine that, after seeing how well things went during the RNC in Tampa, that members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) might have let their guard down as the DNC began.  To the contrary, officers there remained on high alert throughout the convention and made use of every available resource to ensure that the DNC would go just as smoothly.

Mark Newbold, Deputy City Attorney for CMPD, said that after inclement weather deterred protestors at the RNC, CMPD officers were prepared for an increase in DNC protests.  While the number of protestors stayed below their expectations, Newbold said that his department’s preparedness allowed those who did come to protest to do so with limited police involvement.

“Most of the protestors, even the rowdy ones, have been willing to comply,” Newbold said.  “The main focus of the police is that we don’t focus on speech, we focus on criminal behavior.  You can say and do what you want as long as you don’t take violent acts against people or property.”

Protestors take a break in the middle of the street during the DNC. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

While the CMPD sought to create an open environment for demonstrations, several protestors were arrested during the convention.  However, no journalists were arrested, a fact that Newbold credits in large part to NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher, who came to Charlotte in April to help educate and train officers regarding First and Fourth Amendment rights.  Newbold said the work of the department and the NPPA helped to create understanding between journalists and police rather than confrontation.

“After things went as well as they did in Tampa I was concerned that the coverage of the protests in Charlotte might be more problematic, but fortunately the feedback I received was that the police were extremely professional, cordial  and accommodating in both cities,” Osterreicher said. “It is a credit to the Tampa and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police departments that they were not only willing to embrace the idea of allowing the media to do their jobs but that they properly trained officers from so many other agencies to adopt and adhere to that policy,” he added.

Just like during the NATO Summit in Chicago, where Superintendent Gary McCarthy led his officers and in Tampa, where Police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsboro County Sheriff David Gee led theirs – CMPD Chief of Police Rodney Monroe was out on the street directing operations. It is believed that this hands-on approach is also credited with encouraging proper behavior and discipline by officers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe out on the street with his officers. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Brian Cunningham, public information officer (PIO) for CMPD, said that an important step the department took was to place field PIOs in several locations to work with the media.  The PIOs answered journalists’ questions and informed them of where to go.  Cunningham also credits Osterreicher with helping the department develop policies such as the field PIO program.

“Mickey helped with training on working with the media for large scale events,” Cunningham said.  “We were able to train our entire department in media relations, which was critical to our success.”

Highly visible Public Information Officers were on the scene. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Journalists across the nation feared the worst in the days leading up to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  Memories of the mass arrests of protestors and journalists during the 2008 conventions in St. Paul and Denver had not faded, and the arrest of journalists across the nation had steadily increased each year since then.

Although no journalists were arrested during the DNC, on the Saturday before the convention, Washington Post photographer Bonnie Jo Mount said she was approached by Bank of America security guards, who told her that she was not allowed to photograph the outside of their building even though she was on a public sidewalk.

Mount got in touch with Osterreicher, who immediately contacted the head of Bank of America corporate security and the head of security for the building to get clarification on their policies regarding photography.  Osterreicher said that the heads of security acknowledged that Mount had every right to photograph the building from the street, and assured him that the security guards would be made aware of the policies reflecting that right.

“It was very clear from my conversations with Bank of America that they were not happy about some of their overzealous security officers and were more than willing to remedy this problem,” Osterreicher said. “Later in the week I took a picture of the security fence and a guard in front of the building and no one said a word.”

Bank of America corporate security guard outside their headquarters in Charlotte. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

There was also some Twitter traffic regarding two journalists being confronted by police at the direction of “undercover agents” who the journalists had apparently recognized and photographed. According to reports one of the journalists voluntarily deleted his images after both were stopped and searched by uniform police. No official complaints about this incident or any other interference with journalists were received by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which ran a hotline for journalists to handle any problems.

“If [the hotline] keeps one person from going to jail and allows them to get back on the street and reporting the news, then it’s worth it,” said Gregg Leslie, Interim Executive Director for RCFP.

Leslie said the hotline’s inception resulted from strife between police and the media back in 1972, when journalists felt that police were targeting them for arrest.  Since then, attorneys have stood at the ready for when a call comes through from a distressed journalist.

“Over the years it’s really been useful,” Leslie said.  “One to two times during a convention, there will be a mass arrest and reporters will get swept into it.” The NPPA and the Reporters Committee have worked together in the past but Osterreicher said the “cooperation between our organizations is a concrete example of what can be accomplished by partnering on these critical issues.”

In order to give journalists the best chance to have their charges dropped and get back to reporting, RCFP employed attorneys in the host cities of the convention.  This year those positions were assumed by Gregg Thomas and Carol LoCicero of the Tampa firm Thomas & LoCicero, and John Buchan of the Charlotte firm McGuire Woods. They attributed the fact that no calls of problems being received to the level of preparation that went into training officers for the convention.

“We informed the police from the outset that we were here and what our plans were [in the event of a journalist’s arrest],” Thomas said.

LoCicero said that officers were very receptive to the training that they offered prior to the convention, noting that the Tampa Police Department implemented a policy requiring an officer to get approval from a supervisor before making an arrest of a member of the media.

Buchan especially credits the work done by NPPA and the Reporters Committee in the months prior to the convention for informing officers of press rights and the importance of remaining cognizant of those rights while protecting public safety.  Buchan said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) did a great job of using the training to see that police and journalists alike would be able to do their jobs during the convention.

“The police in Charlotte really went to school on what happened in St. Paul and Denver and especially at this year’s Chicago NATO Summit,” Buchan said.  “They didn’t want a repeat of the arrests that took place in 2008 and they did a great job implementing policies to ensure that did not happen.”

Everyone had a camera and was taking photographs or recording. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Osterreicher noted that while he still continues to deal with photographers being interfered with and arrested on an almost daily basis around the country he is very pleased that in those situations where the police have made a concerted effort to avoid such confrontations, they have for the most part not occurred. “The NPPA board of directors made a decision in January of this year to take substantive steps to avoid a repeat of the mass arrests that took place during protests at prior national conventions,” Osterreicher said. “I am very appreciative of the support and direction I received from the board and the opportunity to have helped in some small measure,” he added.

NPPA President Sean Elliot said, “this is a great example of the positive effect of pro-active efforts by NPPA and other groups to reach-out to government agencies;” adding  “journalists, not just NPPA members, owe Mickey and all those involved in these efforts, a debt of gratitude.” “It is my sincere hope that such success can be built upon and spread to more routine interactions between the police and visual journalists,” he concluded.

Posted in Access, Democratic National Convention, First Amendment, National Press Photographers Association, photographers, photojournalism, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Republican National Conventiob, Uncategorized | No Comments »

NPPA General Counsel Helps Keep RNC Journalist-Friendly

August 29th, 2012 by Advocacy Intern and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor speaks to media prior to a protest march at the Republican National Convention Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher

Despite fears from some in the media that law enforcement at the Republican National Convention (RNC) would take a combative approach against protestors and journalists, the first three days of the convention have proven to be rather benign, with no reported interference with or arrests of members of the media.

Thanks in part to training programs implemented by Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), law enforcement at the convention in Tampa have attained a better grasp of the balance between the need to protect the public safety with the First Amendment rights of the press.  It was Osterreicher’s hope that the training would help officers better understand those stakes when interacting with journalists at the convention.

“I think it is a combination of a number of factors, from low protester turnout to the threat of a hurricane in Tampa, along with the fact that law enforcement officials were very receptive to training that has contributed very peaceful demonstrations so far,” Osterreicher said.  “I also commend all the officers from various departments around the state for their very  professional, friendly and helpful attitude toward everyone they encounter, especially the press.”

Osterreicher said he reached out to the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office back in February to offer training that would help officers prepare for the August convention.  The law enforcement offices accepted, and Osterreicher held a training session in April during which he highlighted common First Amendment rights violations officers can make when dealing with journalists.  Osterreicher said he commends Tampa law enforcement for agreeing to the training sessions and that he was happy for the opportunity to provide it.

“Leadership comes from the top and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsboro County Sheriff David Gee have been in the forefront not only in fully embracing and supporting the training but in being out on the street with their officers, protesters and media on a daily basis,” Osterreicher said.

Hillsboro County Sheriff David Gee does a “liveshot” via Skype at the scene of police protester confrontation near the Tampa Convention Center during the Republican National Convention. Photo by Mickey H. Osterreicher.

Mauricio Rodriguez, assistant city attorney for Tampa, said that he was pleased by the way officers and protestors have handled themselves to this point during the RNC.  Rodriguez said that the city being proactive and communicating with protestors and the press has helped to keep the waters calm during the hurricane-blighted convention.

That sentiment was shared by Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Larry McKinnon, who said that his office values First Amendment rights and works to keep officers informed of how to deal with protestors and the media.

“We’ll never arrest a protestor,” McKinnon said.  “We’ll only arrest people breaking the law who happen to be protestors.  We encourage the right to protest so long as you’re obeying the law.”

McKinnon credits the NPPA for helping to prepare Tampa law enforcement for the event.  McKinnon notes that in chaotic times officers will not always be perfect, but that the goal of the sheriff’s office is to make sure that mistakes are corrected so everything runs smoothly.

“The NPPA didn’t come down here saying you better do it this way or else,” McKinnon said.  “Mickey knows it’s not gonna be perfect, but that if there was an issue then it would be resolved the best way possible.”

After a 2008 convention season that saw scores of arrests of protestors and journalists during clashes with police, spokeswoman Laura McElroy of the Tampa Police Department said that the department has been excited that there have been few issues to date.  She credits the NPPA for helping to not only train officers but keeping the media in the know for the convention.

“There is a big disparity between what the officers expect and what the media expect at events like these,” McElroy said.  “We are trying to bridge that disparity.”

The RNC concludes on Thursday.  RNC organizers are still preparing contingency plans in the event that Hurricane Isaac derails planned events for the last day of the convention.  The Democratic National Convention, which is hosted in Charlotte, N.C., will take place from Sep. 4-6 and NPPA will be there as well.

 

Posted in Access, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, FL, Florida, Hillsboro County Sheriff's Office, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Public Photography, Recording, Recording Police, RNC, Tampa, Tampa Police Department | No Comments »

NYPD Returns NY Times Photographer’s Press Credentials

August 23rd, 2012 by Alicia Calzada and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today (8/23/12) the New York Police Department (NYPD) returned the press credentials of a New York Times photographer who had his equipment and credentials seized following his arrest on August 4th.

Robert Stolarik, who was arrested on charges of obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest while photographing police activity on assignment, said, “My cameras were returned to me two weeks ago. Getting my gear back was the first step and now I have my credentials. The next part of this process will be getting the charges dropped.”

The return of his credentials was a result of the efforts by National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) general counsel, Mickey H. Osterreicher and New York Times attorney George Freeman, who expressed his satisfaction with “such a great result.” Osterreicher who negotiated with NYPD legal staff said, “We are very appreciative that the NYPD reconsidered their position with regard to the return of Robert’s credentials but still believe it is unfortunate that they were taken in the first place and we will work very diligently to see that the charges are dismissed.” “We hope the department uses this incident as a teachable moment in improving police-press relations in NY,” Osterreicher added.

The return of the seized equipment on August 10, 2012 came days after the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) sent a letter to Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne of the NYPD that objected to the rough treatment and arrest of Stolarik and requested that his equipment be returned to him.

Osterreicher also sent a letter to the editor which was published by the NY Times on that same Friday morning, in which among other things, the NPPA attorney urged “the New York Police Department to work with us to improve training and supervision for its members starting from the top down .”

Posted in Assault on Photographers, confiscated, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fourth Amendment rights, National Press Photographers Association, New York TImes, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, NYPD, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Police, Press Credentials, Robert Stolarik | No Comments »

Lawsuit Targets San Diego Law Enforcement Agencies for First Amendment Rights Violations

August 10th, 2012 by Advocacy Intern and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The American News and Information Services (ANIS) filed a Complaint Wednesday in federal district court seeking redress for the repeated violation of the First Amendment rights of an ANIS employee by San Diego City and County government officials.

The complaint alleges that San Diego law enforcement exhibited a pattern of First Amendment rights violations by giving law enforcement officers excessive discretion to prevent access to and recording of public safety activity.  It also alleges that the pattern is further evidenced by the San Diego Police Department’s (SDPD) exclusive authority to issue media credentials and the retaliatory actions taken against those who attempt to exercise their right to record.

“The SD Defendants, despite a revolution in access to news brought on by rapid technological advances, still seek through the use of government-issued press credentials control of the message through control of the messenger,” the complaint states.

James C. Playford, a National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) member who began work for ANIS after the SDPD refused to renew his press credentials, has been arrested four times since 2010 while attempting to cover public safety activities.  Three of those arrests resulted in the seizure of Playford’s equipment and raw video.  A photo and physical description of Playford was also allegedly disseminated to San Diego law enforcement identifying him as an individual prohibited from access to public safety activity.

San Diego law enforcement agencies have come under fire recently due to repeated arrests of photojournalists.  The NPPA sent a letter  to the SDPD and along with one from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial County (ACLU) which they referenced on their website, requesting an end to police interference with photojournalists’ rights to record events occurring in public.  Wednesday’s letter was NPPA’s third letter to San Diego law enforcement this year concerning the rights of photojournalists.

“While the press may not have any greater access rights than the public to these incidents, they have no less rights either,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for NPPA, in his letter to the SDPD.  “Unfortunately a number of your officers have abused their discretion in limiting those press rights and then have detained and arrested our members when questioned about such discriminatory acts.”

In the most recent media controversy, NPPA member and freelance photojournalist Edward Baier was arrested on July 20th by the SDPD and charged with interfering with a police officer, though Baier claimed he was attempting to film from private property with the owner’s permission.  Baier said he was tackled by two officers during the altercation, causing him injuries requiring medical attention.

Baier’s arrest was his second this year by the SDPD.  In January, police told Baier to move away from the scene of a drowning, though the public was allowed to remain inside of the police tape.  When Baier protested, he was arrested and charged with resisting arrest.  The arresting officers later added two counts of assaulting an officer.

The NPPA sent a letter to the SDPD in January objecting to Baier’s arrest, and later sent a letter to the Office of the City Attorney requesting that Baier’s charges be dropped.

“The reliance by your officer to question, detain, interfere with, arrest and seize the property of someone engaged in a lawful activity under color of law is reprehensible,” Osterreicher said in his January letter to the SDPD.  “At best, behavior that chills free speech and unreasonably seizes property is extremely unprofessional, at worst it is criminal.”

Posted in Access, ACLU, ACLU of Dan Diego & Imperial County, Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, confiscated, First Amendment, First Amendment rights, Lawsuit, National Press Photographers Association, Newsgathering, NPPA, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism, Recording Police, San Diego Police Department, SDPD | No Comments »

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