published Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Officials vs. a free press

Newspaper reporters and photographers are accustomed to navigating a range of obstacles in the course of covering newsworthy events, so they learn to take most roadblocks and hassles in stride. But when zealous public officials and police authorities overreach their authority and make up imaginary rules to thwart legitimate news-gathering activities on behalf of the public interest, that cannot be overlooked. News gathering is a core constitutional right of a free press. That right must be respected if the news media is to fulfill its public responsibilities and do its jobs.

This paper’s tireless work to report the unprecedented extent of tornado damage and its costly and painful human toll here last week provides several cases that illustrate such wrong-headed interference by public officials.

Last Thursday, one of our reporters, Kate Harrison, was following volunteers cleaning up debris in the heavily damaged Apison area when she was confronted by three veteran, high-ranking public officials who ordered her to stop taking photographs. The officials — Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd and Hamilton County’s director of emergency services, Don Allen — clearly should have known that Harrison’s work was constitutionally protected. That they could occupy such high positions and not know, or care about, or respect the nation’s First Amendment rights boggles the mind.

Harrison also was commanded by emergency services spokeswoman Amy Maxwell not to publish any of the photographs she had taken, and later was threatened with arrest. (We published one of Harrison’s photos.)

All these actions were an unconstitutional infringement on Harrison’s and this newspaper’s right and ability to serve the vital functions of a free press.

Harrison was in a public area where other members of the public were moving about freely. Police had not officially cordoned off the area; members of the public could come and go as they pleased. Courts have long recognized that in such public circumstances, reporters and photographers, including freelancers, have a constitutional right to observe, report and photograph anything the public is permitted to observe.

That’s a simple, reasonable and well-established rule of the road for news-gathering activities. Police and public officials should know and respect it. It embodies the essence of the media’s responsibility to serve as the information conduit to readers, subscribers and viewers about events in the public sphere that shape and affect our lives and communities.

In a similar incident on the same day, another member of our news staff — photographer Allison Carter — was threatened with arrest by a Catoosa County deputy sheriff if she did not cease photographing tornado damage at a Food Lion shopping center, and if she did not delete the pictures she had taken from her camera.

Carter, like Harrison, was in a public space with other members of the public, and she was in no way interfering with the deputy’s work. Deputy Brown (Carter didn’t get his first name, but she got his badge number) should have known that Carter was entitled to perform her news-gathering work for the paper. If Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers’ deputies don’t know and respect First Amendment rights, then surely they need a lesson in them.

We don’t make these complaints public without a reason. In fact, the news media’s rights in this country are protected because they are the public’s rights; because they serve the public interest — of readers, viewers and citizens generally — to know what is happening in their communities and public offices, and what is happening to their fellow citizens and environment in the public sphere.

Public information is an essential element of the glue that holds the public interest together, and that further serves to inform, advance and protect it. It is part and parcel of this nation’s democratic fiber, soul and spine. Citizens’ rights to know, indeed, is what separates a free country from those with autocratic leaders and tyrants who can quietly cover up misdeeds and, in many countries, make opponents disappear.

The right to a free press, like the other First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, of religion, of public assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances, are all bound together. Reporters in other countries often put their lives at risk to serve the public’s right to know: 102 journalists around the world were killed doing their jobs last year.

Fortunately, our reporters and photographers rarely face perilous hazards. And like most responsible journalists, they generally respect police and officials who provide emergency services. But wrongful repression of a free press in any form is not allowed under the Constitution, and it cannot be tolerated. It squelches the public interest. And if tolerated, it would steadily encroach further and further on the public’s right to know.

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
rsimms said...

Well put... thank you.

May 5, 2011 at 1:44 p.m.
bret said...

Amen. As a photographer I often feel like anyone with a camera is treated as someone up to no good. I have been stopped by an officer who demanded to see my photos while I was shooting in a public place by myself.

It seems that some law enforcement officers or people in authority view photographers and reporters as potential terrorists. One wonders what they are trying to hide?

May 5, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
chet123 said...

LIBERTARIAN...let me set you straight once again...because you have a problem analyzing and drawing a parallel on subjects and situations..your analogy is blinded with for instance you talk about free speech..Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh have more free speech than Dan Rather(he was fired) had and Dan was telling the truth. LIBERTARIAN your heros are thin skinned...they fall apart when there opposition criticizing them.You my friend want a free pass(no affirmative action for you buddy) Also..Glenn Beck is a big lair...accused the President of being a racist, a socialist, a terrorist and you think noone suppose to call him out?? Terry Jones..threaten the security of our military men and women....but i didnt see anyone jailing him...he got push back which is a good thing for america...many muslim are friendly to us in this war. It seem like you are the one desiring to violate free speech. Because you get so upset when you receive push-back LOL LOL another thing...your sources are propagandist...much of the bloggs you read have no true detectors(that why you so mixed up in the actully beleiev that trash)...they just throw mud...hoping something will stick....your FOX NEWS network put out a lie that the president flew to India...costing tax payer 20billion my friend make a comparisons of apple and make no sense my say you graduated from college LOL LOL...go back and get a refund...maybe you can take a 8th grade course in America civic...or 8th grade history hiding when i'm posting...stop being a coward...and debate one on one with everyone witnessing what a craze you are LIBERTARIAN...hope there is no hard feeling...maybe we can eat lunch together one day

May 5, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.

i hope you are buying chet, i suspect wingnut4life is a whopper flopper at the BK and he would have to go cheap on you.

May 5, 2011 at 11:06 p.m.
nppalawyer said...

As the General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) I deal with news photographers being interfered with and sometimes arrested by the very same people who are sworn to protect and serve their community. I commend the Times Free Press for bringing this situation to the public's attention. As I have often told our members - the press may not have a greater right than the public but they certainly do not have any less right to gather the news and report from public places.

Far too often publications are reluctant to raise First Amendment infringements by public officials for fear of alienating them on future stories. The only way to keep these constitutional freedoms meaningful is through education and proper training. Law enforcement officials should make sure that officers understand and respect the laws that they are enforcing. Wearing a badge carries with it the responsibility to uphold the law, not make up rules to suit a purpose. To hear that a police chief and a sheriff violated that trust is truly disappointing. They should be leading by setting a positive example. Hopefully being taken to task in print will make them realize the error of their ways. If not one can only hope that voters will remember their unlawful conduct come election time.

Thank you again for bringing this situation to light.

May 6, 2011 at 8:25 a.m.
chet123 said...

LIBERTARIAN...Oh i get it....they give opinion(lies)and you quote it as facts....let me give you some facts my lil buddy...the republican politician make policies base on FOX and rush Limbaugh opinion..those people who you say are just giving opinion ..they assist in electing you office holder...actually they are more powerful than the dont give me that have lost your party to DOPE HEADS(limbaugh was arrested for drugs) you see FOX president is Roger Ailes..hmmmm guess it a coincident he was media consultant for Richard Nixon,and your Hero Ronald (looney) Reagan..hmmm just a coincident i'm sure(this fool is President of FOX)He was Ronald Reagan right-hand man...Roger Ailes propelled Rush Limbaugh from radio to national stage of television(fox connection again)Roger Ailes played the race card with Willie Horton Ad..Scaring the crap out of good people and getting geo.H.Bush elected....what about that for opinion LOL LOL...dont forget about Ronald Reagan...striking down media fairness so the rich can flood the air way wwith propaganda without opposition given fair are on the wrong side of history....and you use the word OPINION/ENTERTAINMENT LOL LOL LOL ...dont try to mask your misdeed with deceiving words

May 6, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.
chet123 said...

Let me tell something else Beck apoligized after FOX NEWS was Threaten,,,it was done to save his butt

May 6, 2011 at 10:49 a.m.
chet123 said...

this is the corruption you get with an oligardarch Government...when the few rich(they are worth trillion and trillions of dollars)can buy the media(pump their propaganda using pundits like libertarian),insurance(lobby washington) the Banks,Big oil the tenacle strectch into all aspect of our lives...american people relinquish our true liberty...this is bad for all American...yes even small business ower(mon and pop stores)for you will be sucked up by large mom and pop hardware sucked up by wal-mart...Libertarian dont have sense enough to realize but a pure capitalism government will come after libertarian ...but by the time your light-bulb comes on it will be too late LIBERTARIAN

May 6, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.
mickeywhite said...

I hope TFP follows up on this.

May 6, 2011 at 6:53 p.m.
chet123 said...

LIBERTARIAN how can anyone debate with someone who quote all his material without fact just read your hate bloggers and there you go bro....much of which are lies....i dont have to look for blogger to give me information ...history presents it...its history that Ronald Reagan was a butt kisser for corporate...and that Roger Aile who is President of FOX worked for Ronald Reagan..and Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater help to elect George H.Bush playing the race card..LOL LOL ie Willie Horton...History shows Ronald Reagan Deregulated the Banks and WALL STREET..History show Fair Media was removed under Ronald Reagan...the income gap widen under Ronald Reagan...Trickle Down economy was just that a trick...ronald reagon gave Bin Laden weapons(can You beleive that)

also my good man...when you speak of msnbc or any other news...none of these networks tell out right lies...but FOX does...i dont care about the ideology or philosophy..if the truth is told....but fox tell out right lies mix-up with some truth( wears diaper..police car chase) but on political issue 80% lies.... and FOX operate as republican campaign center.i do have this to say...THANKS GOD FOR MSNBC...they ripe FOX butt hole out every nite....FOX is a network for old people like you my man...who want to relive the so-call glory days

May 6, 2011 at 7:38 p.m.
mickeywhite said...

Reminds me of why Marsha Blackburn likes to have her 'town hall' meetings at Private Businesses instead of Public property. She will stop you from handing out her Voting record if it is at a restaurant or church.. Marsha Blackburn Voted FOR: Omnibus Appropriations, Special Education, Global AIDS Initiative, Job Training, Unemployment Benefits, Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations, Agriculture Appropriations, FY2004 Foreign Operations Appropriations, U.S.-Singapore Trade, U.S.-Chile Trade, Supplemental Spending for Iraq & Afghanistan, Flood Insurance Reauthorization , Prescription Drug Benefit, Child Nutrition Programs, Surface Transportation, Job Training and Worker Services, Agriculture Appropriations, Foreign Aid, Debt Limit Increase, Fiscal 2005 Omnibus Appropriations, Vocational/Technical Training, Supplemental Appropriations, UN “Reforms.” Patriot Act Reauthorization, CAFTA, Katrina Hurricane-relief Appropriations, Head Start Funding, Line-item Rescission, Oman Trade Agreement, Military Tribunals, Electronic Surveillance, Head Start Funding, COPS Funding, Funding the REAL ID Act (National ID), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, Thought Crimes “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, Peru Free Trade Agreement, Economic Stimulus, Farm Bill (Veto Override), Warrantless Searches, Employee Verification Program, Body Imaging Screening, Patriot Act extension.

Marsha Blackburn Voted AGAINST: Ban on UN Contributions, eliminate Millennium Challenge Account, WTO Withdrawal, UN Dues Decrease, Defunding the NAIS, Iran Military Operations defunding Iraq Troop Withdrawal, congress authorization of Iran Military Operations, Withdrawing U.S. Soldiers from Afghanistan.

Marsha Blackburn is my Congressman. See her “blatantly unconstitutional” votes at : Mickey

May 6, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
frettfull said...

This is about public access to public areas and events. This lack of discipline in the ranks of emergency management is all the more appalling in that it is from the very top down. The officer on the street can be trained and will follow what is taught in most cases. What's being taught by those 3 Chiefs is that flagrant disrespect for the law is permitted for wearers of the badge. The word bullying comes to mind.

May 11, 2011 at 2:16 p.m.
spendy said...

I understand that TFP has a job to do as well as 1st responders. I also understand about "rights". If I had a choice of whose side to take on this issue then it would be that of the 1st responders considering they are way to under paid to be out there putting their lives on the line & saving lives while we sleep at night. The last time I checked a camera man/reporter do not dodge bullets, perform CPR, etc etc. There is a time & place for your job & here lately it's all bad timing when & how these reporters are approaching these situations. Maybe there is a class out there about ethics for "some" of the individuals mentioned. There are rules in place for everything in life & some people have a harder time than others on how to follow these "rules". In the event of a disaster or murder, if you're not there to help the families then move on besides there are several gangs out there that would love to have an article written about their lifestyle.

May 11, 2011 at 3:01 p.m.
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