After a spate of lawsuits following the George Floyd protests, relations between police and media have never been more strained, or more complicated.
Court-ordered training sessions between police and media have been taking place in Minneapolis, led by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).
General Counsel of the NPPA Mickey Osterreicher wants to stop occurrences happening like a photographer who almost lost his finger during a protest in Denver, or a photographer who lost her eye in Minneapolis.
Osterreicher has performed numerous training exercises between police and media. The sessions in Minnesota were thanks to the Goyette v. The City of Minneapolis lawsuit.
“There were a lot of incidents involving police and press where they were either interfered with or they were injured or they were arrested,” Osterreicher tells PetaPixel.
“A number of journalists brought a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the police and enjoining them from doing certain things. From arresting them, to using less lethal munitions against them.”
Part of the lawsuit was settled out of court, which cost taxpayers $825,000. The settlement’s terms required that all the troopers in Minnesota had to receive First Amendment training.
Journalists in the Gopher State were granted a restraining order against the police. Police were enjoined from using “less lethal ammunition” against someone they know or should know is a journalist, and bans them from seizing their equipment or issuing dispersal orders to journalists.
Osterreicher made several trips to Minnesota and did an estimated 15 sessions with both police and journalists in attendance. The training was provided as part of a grant from the Knight Foundation and Press Freedom Defense Fund.
“Hopefully, there was a better understanding of the rights and limitations that journalists have,” says Osterreicher.
Under the First Amendment, the right to record and photograph things in public is essentially a presumption; but it’s not absolute.
“It’s subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. Those restrictions have to be content-neutral, they have to be narrowly tailored to serve a specific government interest such as public safety. And they must leave open alternative avenues of communication,” he says.
“If you have an incident with one or two officers and a journalist gets real close with the camera they are perfectly justified to direct that person to take a few steps back. They might be worried about weapon retention.”
Osterreicher says it really does depend on the situation. For example, if there is a bomb threat or an active shooter, cops might reasonably request the press to go back a couple of blocks.
Who Constitutes as a Journalist?
In the modern era, reporters from the New York Times and a YouTuber with 18 subscribers can look exactly the same. This makes it very difficult for police to determine who is legitimately press and who is not.
“We all know that journalists today are sent out with iPhones and they look like everybody else with an iPhone, oftentimes they do have credentials,” says Osterreicher.
“But oftentimes, we’ve seen during a protest, journalists being attacked by protestors for being journalists. So they often will hide their credentials. It’s definitely not an easy task.”
Ultimately Osterreicher believes in the American justice system ethos that would prefer a hundred guilty people go free rather than one innocent person see a conviction.
“A good number of people claiming to be journalists should be allowed to stay, rather than arresting journalists in general who are doing their job.”
Seeing Both Sides
Osterreicher is perfectly placed for mediation between journalists and media. He was a photojournalist in both print and broadcast for over 40 years. He has also been a uniform reserve Sherrif’s deputy in Erie Country, New York for a similar length of time.
“I understand the challenges of law enforcement but I certainly understand the fact that journalists need to be able to do their job,” he explains.
“I’m constantly encouraging journalists and news organizations to have conversations with police agencies before things go bad,” he says.
“During the middle of a huge protest is not necessarily the best time to stop and have a good conversation about what everyone should and shouldn’t be doing.”
Image credits: Feature photo by Adam Gray/SWNS.