NPPA & Press Bring Lawsuit Against NYPD for…ahem… “Media [photography] Blackouts” and Violation of First Amendment”

Photo_Andrew Katz/Flickr_chasejarvisblog

Photo: Andrew Katz/Flickr

I’m not a photojournalist by trade, but I am a member of the photography community and as such I’m always on the lookout to bring awareness to basic violations of our First Amendment rights.

A few weeks back the National Photograpaher’s Press Association joined a lawsuit against the NYPD. 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.”

You may recall back in August, I reported on the arrest of photographer, Robert Stolarik, 43, who worked regularly for The New York Times for more than a decade. The line was clearly crossed in this case. [Read my interview with Stolarick here. After repeated letters and complaints to the NYPD, Robert’s equipment and press credentials were returned .

Or back in September… the NPAA and 13 major media outlets, including the Huffington Post, penned a letter to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denouncing incidents in which members of the press have been wrongfully detained by the police. The letter, written by aforementioned attorney for the NPPA Mickey Osterreicher, reads in part:

“It is our strongly asserted position that while the press may not have a greater right of access than the public, they have no less right either…Given these ongoing issues and incidents we believe that more is needed in order to improve police-press relations and to clarify the ability of credentialed and non-credentialed journalists to photograph and record on public streets without fear of intimidation and arrest. Therefore, we urge you meet with us once again so that we may help devise a better system of education and training for department members starting from the top down.”

In response, Kelly sent a department-wide memo reminding officers not to interfere with journalists.

But the situation has continued to intensify. And the NPAA joined 5 elected officials and almost a dozen individual members of the press most recently in a formal lawsuit against the New York Police Department. 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. It also paints a picture of the NYPD as an unaccountable, insular organization that covers up the misconduct of individual police officers.

“These practices, policies and customer engender perverse incentive for officers to commit acts of misconduct against civilians without consequences,” the lawsuit states. This lastest action is less about specific incidents with photographers and more about the general blocking of media coverage around the Occupy Wall Street protests. But it is important to note in the context of that fine line between “protecting and serving” and violating Free Speech. In what is now referred to as the Occupy Wall Street “media blackout,” numerous journalists prominently wearing press credentials were arrested. Multiple accounts of aggressive and even violent conduct also reportedly ensued.

NOW…before anybody winges…don’t get me wrong – I’m the son of a retired cop and I understand that the police have very serious work to do (and it’s our job as photographers not to interfere). No doubt the NYPD specifically has a long history of protecting and serving (kudos for when superstorm Sandy work on the front lines) but too often now there is a lack of understanding our basic freedoms around photography. These lines need to be redrawn and the NPPA needs your support. Support the NPPA here by becoming a member, donating, or stories you’re aware of where rights have been abused.

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