Photography Is Not a Crime: The Year of the Citizen Journalist

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Carlos Miller’s recent trial victory represents another small step in the successful assertion of the First Amendment rights of citizen-journalists. Miller, who runs the website Photography Is Not A Crime, was charged with resisting arrest when he refused to stop filming and evacuate an area during an Occupy Miami event. While the American Civil Liberties Union states that police only have the right to stop an individual from photographing in a public space when the photographer’s activities “are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations” a quick glance down Miller’s website shows that police are quick to use charges of resisting arrest to confiscate then delete digital images.

As the Supreme Court noted in Dun & Bradstreet v. Greenmoss Builders (472 U.S. 749 (1984)), the right for citizens to debate on matters of public concern is “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.” In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” for without a functioning press to alert citizens of governmental corruption and abuses of power, the democratic process cannot properly function. The First Amendment provides freedom for newsgathering activities, but does not allow journalists to break the law in their attempts to gather information. However, it is important for courts to show deference to journalists’ newsgathering activities, including and especially amateur journalists, in order to further this vital social activity.

2012 could well be called the year of the citizen journalist. The Occupy movement was heavily covered by its own members, recording and distributing the movement’s fractious message, and reporting on the repeated clashes with police. The Occupy protests demonstrated the power of amateur reporters to put a check on governmental force; from the initial outcry over the NYC pepper spray incident to a one million dollar settlement over a similar incident at UC Davis. When Oakland police seriously injured Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, citizen journalists provided on-the-scene coverage.

The power of citizen journalists extended far beyond the Occupy movement through 2012. Mitt Romney’s “47% Speech” represented a major milestone in the 2012 Presidential Election. Amateur journalists spotlighted the NYC Police Department’s controversial stop and frisk program by surreptitiously recording, then broadcasting, these encounters over the Internet. Former NYC police officer Adrian Schoolcraft’s recordings, cataloguing misconduct within his department, continued to make national news. In April, The Cato Institute “mainstreamed” independent researcher David Packman’s site Injustice Everywhere, showing a growing acceptance of these alternative and specialized news services.

The need for citizen journalists is greater than ever. Public confidence in the traditional press has been declining since the early 1970s. Many major news agencies filter information through ideological lenses to appeal to target demographics. Major agencies have also reduced the size of their news bureaus in response to declining profits. This creates voids of confidence and coverage that might be more easily filled by independent citizen journalists. At the same time, the expanding complexity of both the government and the private sector increases the need for public awareness. The financial collapse of 2008 demonstrated how entangled private sector industries can be, and the dangers of a lack of oversight. Many sectors of the US government have greatly expanded since 9/11.

Given the growing power of citizen journalists, it’s unsurprising that authority figures sometimes overextend their power and restrict citizens from recording their activities. It’s easy to confiscate a digital camera, delete images, and avoid negative publicity. Citizen journalists frequently lack professional training, and on many occasions genuinely interfere with police business. Overall, police tolerance of amateur journalists during the Occupy protests and other recent events is commendable. However, courts should be wary of situations when “stop filming” turns into “resisting arrest;” often the filming does not constitute legitimate interference with police activities. To protect the First Amendment right to gather information and debate matters of public concern, courts should show deference to citizen journalists and at the very least, not hinder this fledgling movement from gaining traction.


Posted by Sidney L. Fowler on Sun. November 25, 2012 7:22 AM
Categories: Freedom of the Press

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