National Press Club

Police crackdown on photogs increasing in U.S., media rights attorney tells NPC

June 28, 2012 | By Rachel Oswald |

Incidents of journalists and citizens being denied by police their rights to photograph and record in public spaces are on the rise in the United States, a media law attorney told members of the National Press Club June 27.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel to the National Press Photographers Association, briefed a joint meeting of the NPC Photography and Press Freedom Committees on ongoing efforts by media and civil rights advocacy organizations to ensure that the public’s right to record and document such things as police activities and public protests is not jeopardized by law enforcement officials.

In a number of recent events around the country, Osterreicher reported, law enforcement officials have threatened both journalists and regular citizens with arrest. They also have deleted images and video from smart phones used to record police activities.

Police efforts to curtail journalists’ ability to record in public are primarily motivated by a desire to protect private citizens’ privacy, according to Osterreicher, a photojournalist himself with decades of experience.

"I think it’s part of the police culture. Their idea of serve and protect includes protecting people from having their pictures taken,” he said, adding, but “that’s not their job.”

Osterreicher attributed the large number of incidents to police attempting to play catch- up to the proliferation of relatively inexpensive high-quality recording technology. “Everybody has a camera now and everybody has the ability to record high-quality audio and video and transmit it immediately,” he said.

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom advocacy organization, in its 2012 World Press Freedom Index significantly lowered the U.S. ranking to 47th place. The decline is largely a result of the targeting and arrests of dozens of professional and citizen journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street movement, the organization said.

Osterreicher’s organization is concerned that the upcoming political conventions in Tampa and Charlotte will see journalists’ right to record and take photographs similarly constrained.

To prevent that from happening, Osterreicher said he has reached out to the Secret Service and to local law enforcement officials to remind them of the relevant media laws and to set up procedures for handling possible incidents where journalists are faced with arrest.

“Both the police agencies in Tampa and Charlotte are very receptive. They don’t want to look bad,” he said.