By Brian Lynch
Phillip Datz, a professional photojournalist, was working as an independent news stringer in the state of New York. In July of 2011 he was covering a Suffolk County police chase through Bohemia, NY for a local news station. The police chase ended on a public street and Mr. Datz began filming the police investigation from across the street on a public sidewalk. Within seconds of beginning filming, an officer approached Mr. Datz and instructed him to “go away” despite the press credentials Mr. Datz had displayed. Mr. Datz sought another location to film but was intercepted by the same police officer and arrested. See the altercation below.
Mr. Datz was handcuffed, taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration. The charges were later dropped by the Suffolk County District Attorney. Mr. Datz has since filed a civil suit against the arresting officer and Suffolk County for obstructing the First Amendment right of the press and the public to record and gather news about police activity in public places. The complaint seeks injunctive relief barring Suffolk County police officers from further interfering with the First Amendment rights of the public and press.
After the arrest, Suffolk Police Deputy Chief Chris Bergold publicly apologized for the incident and detailed plans to bring in media experts to train police officers.
The complaint alleges similar incidents have been on the rise within the county, but the same can likely be said for the nation as well. Suffolk Media Law has detailed the issue of filming police activity and similar incidents here and here. Most courts have sided with photographers or videographers in what seems like a clear infringement on First Amendment rights.
Any defenders of the police conduct?
One high profile judge has commented “Once all this stuff can be recorded, there’s going to be a lot more of this snooping around by reporters and bloggers . . . I’m always suspicious when the civil liberties people start telling the police how to do their business.” George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley details some judicial ambivalence to the First Amendment here.
You can read the Datz complaint here.