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Body Blows Against the First Amendment

Two recent cases show the contempt with which our government, at the federal and state levels, views the First Amendment.

First Amendment Semi-Win After Military Police Harass, Sexually Threaten Journalist

A very basic tenet of our democracy is that a free press exists to report to The People on the actions of their government, and that government is prohibited by the beautiful words of the First Amendment from interfering. In a small instance in Ohio, after the government had military police officers in the United States harass and confiscate the cameras of journalists, the journalists went to court and won back their rights.

The U.S. government agreed March 5 to pay The Toledo Blade newspaper $18,000 for seizing the cameras of a photographer and deleting photographs taken outside the Lima Tank plant last year. In turn, The Blade agreed to dismiss the lawsuit it filed U.S. District Court on behalf of photographer Jetta Fraser and reporter Tyrel Linkhorn against Chuck Hagel, then Secretary of Defense and the military police officers involved in the March 28, 2014, incident.

An attorney for The Blade said the settlement was made under the First Amendment Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits the government, in connection with the investigation of a criminal offense, from searching or seizing any work product materials possessed by a journalist. “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.”

The government admits no wrongdoing, however, and just paid off the settlement.

Here’s what happened. The reporter and photographer were in Lima to cover a news conference at another facility and had been tasked to take photos of area businesses for future use, including pictures of the tank plant, known as the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center.

As the pair were leaving they were detained by three military police officers and questioned. Fraser showed the officers her Blade identification, but initially declined to provide her driver’s license as she was not driving. She was removed against her will from her vehicle and handcuffed for more than an hour.

During the confrontation, the officers repeatedly referred to Ms. Fraser in the masculine gender. She objected and was told by one officer, “You say you are a female. I’m going to go under your bra.”

The officers then confiscated two cameras, memory cards, a pocket-sized personal calendar, and a notebook in clear violation of the First Amendment.

Philly Cop Arrests Man for Photographing Philly Cop Harassing Homeless Woman

A college student arrested as he photographed a Philadelphia police officer harass a homeless woman in a public park was put into handcuffs and held for an hour. Federal jurors must now decide whether the cop had cause to cuff Coulter Loeb, 24, pictured, and charge him with disorderly conduct.

The case, however, is about far more than a simple disorderly conduct rap. At issue is how the Philadelphia government sees the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution, and how it views people fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens to provide oversight to government employees performing their jobs. And it does not look good for all that in Philly.

Things went south almost from the get-go, after the trial judge dismissed any connection between the arrest and the First Amendment.

In a pretrial order that covered two similar cases, the judge ruled that the federal appeals court in Philadelphia had not “clearly established” a First Amendment right to photograph police as of 2011, when this incident occurred. “Whether the Third Circuit will eventually decide to follow what appears to be a growing trend in other circuits to recognize a First Amendment right to observe and record police activity is, of course, not for this court to decide, even if there are good policy reasons [to] adopt that change,” U.S. District William Yohn wrote. He therefore threw out Loeb’s free-speech claim, leaving a jury to weigh only the Fourth Amendment issues of false arrest and malicious prosecution.

Moving on to how the city of Philadelphia views these issues, we turn to the city attorney working the case, who described arrestee Coulter Loeb, in front of his ACLU attorney, as “a meddlesome 24-year-old” with “very high-minded ideas about government” and the role of media. The Assistant City Solicitor told jurors that Loeb was interfering with police work by photographing police work in a public place.

But what was in the mind of the arresting officer? “He [Loeb ]looked me up and down, and then took one step back. That to me was being a wise guy,” said the cop.

Irony Alert: Yes, yes, it was in Philadelphia in 1787 that the Constitutional Convention was held. How far we have fallen.

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Peter Van Buren blogs at We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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