By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The federal government has agreed to pay $18,000 to the Toledo Blade for infringing on the First Amendment rights of a photographer and reporter in March 2014.
Military police approached Blade photographer Jetta Fraser and reporter Tyrel Linkhorn outside a military manufacturing facility on a public road in Lima, Ohio, where the journalists were taking photos.
Officers seized Fraser’s cameras, deleted her photographs, handcuffed and harassed her and detained both her and Linkhorn, who are members of the Toledo Newspaper Guild.
The feds won’t come right out and say the MPs messed up. But the message is clear: defense department officials wouldn’t have paid up if they felt they had a Constitutional leg to stand on. They also wanted to avoid what would have been an ugly, embarrassing court case.
As Fritz Byers, an attorney for the paper said, in a published statement March 6: “The harassment and detention of The Blade’s reporter and photographer, the confiscation of their equipment, and the brazen destruction of lawful photographs cannot be justified by a claim of military authority or by the supposed imperatives of the national security state.”
Last April, the Blade filed a lawsuit in U.S. District court on behalf of Fraser and Linkhorn, naming as defendants then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Lt. Col. Matthew Hodge, commandant of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center and the military police involved in the incident.
The lawsuit was filed under the First Amendment Privacy Protection Act, which protects journalists from being required to turn over work product and documentary materials to law enforcement before the information is published, broadcast or otherwise released publicly.
John Robinson Black, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Blade, said last week he was “very happy it’s resolved,” but wished the government would admit wrongdoing.
“We appear to know more about the U.S. Constitution than responsible federal defense officials,” Black said. “I wish they could admit in this instance, in any instance, that they were wrong and violated our rights.”
But that would mean admitting guilt and when has the government ever publicly acknowledged wrongdoing?
According to the complaint filed by The Blade, Fraser and Linkhorn were on assignment in Lima. They had covered a news conference and stopped to take photos of area businesses for future use, including the tank manufacturing plant.
Fraser began shooting areas of the plant visible from the street, while standing in a small roadway between a public street and a guard’s hut. As she and Linkhorn began to leave, three military police officers approached and asked why they were taking photos. The journalists produced their Blade ID cards and said they were there on assignment.
The officers told Fraser, who was not driving, that they needed to see her driver’s license. When she questioned whether that was necessary, officers ordered her to get out of the car, handcuffed her and conducted a pat-down search. She remained in handcuffs for an hour.
It gets worse.
Throughout the encounter, the complaint states, officers addressed Fraser “in terms denoting the masculine gender.” Fraser repeatedly asked them not to do so, reportedly prompting one officer to comment, “You say you are a female, I’m going to go under your bra.”
Kurt Franck, the Blade’s executive editor, told the Columbia Journalism Review that he was “appalled” by the way Fraser was treated.
The federal Privacy Protection Act requires law enforcement to take “special steps” when planning a search that agents have reason to believe may result in the seizure of certain First Amendment materials.
The Act allows those who sue to recover a minimum of $1,000 per violation. Why federal officials agreed to pay 18 times the minimum required under the law is an indication of just how egregious authorities’ actions were that day.
Blade officials said $5,000 of the settlement will be donated to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The remainder of the settlement will be shared by the Fraser and Linkhorn. None of it will be used to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.
The government initially tried to hide behind a World War II statute that prohibits the taking of any photograph, sketching, picturing or drawing of a military installation defined by the president as “vital” and “requiring protection against the general dissemination of information.”
But the army never claimed it invoked the federal statute to deny the two journalists assess to the facility probably because the president wasn’t going to go along with the charade and declare the work done at the facility as “vital” to national security.
The army has refused to apologize for its aberrant behavior that day. A letter dated Feb. 25 and signed by Col. Ronald J. Shun, chief of staff for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, states that the Army “ takes seriously its obligations to protect its military installations” and “acknowledges the important role that the press serves in a free society.”
Really? Confiscating journalists’ materials, handcuffing and harassing them is a funny way of showing it.
As Americans, we are proud of the role the military plays in protecting our country. But journalists aren’t enemies of the state and should not be treated as such.