Police vs. press

Search warrants, arrests, pepper spray — most student journalistsmanage to avoid extreme situations involving law enforcement while doing theirjobs. However, two college photojournalists recently found themselves insituations that highlighted tensions between the press and the police. 

Pennsylvania State University


Michael Felletter, a photographer on assignment for his campus newspaper,The Daily Collegian


Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

What happened

Felletter was charged with six misdemeanors after he covered apost-football-game riot in October 2008. His attorney said these chargesviolated Felletter’s First Amendment rights because he was specificallytargeted as a member of the press.

During the riot, police asked Felletter to disperse several times, and eachtime he left and resumed his coverage elsewhere. At one point, Felletter wasstanding on the sidewalk when an officer asked him again to leave and threatenedhim with pepper spray. As Felletter walked away, the officer informed him he wasunder arrest and demanded his drivers license, according to police testimony andFelletter’s attorney, Andrew Shubin.

How it turned out

On March 4, a judge threw out Felletter’s disorderly conduct chargeand four of his five failure-to-disperse charges. The remainingfailure-to-disperse charge was dismissed this summer by Judge David Grine.

“The Court does not believe that Defendant refused to or knowinglyfailed to obey dispersal orders,” stated Grine in his order to grantFelletter’s pre-trial motion to dismiss. “The Court believes thatthe arrest of Defendant was made in good faith by an officer who believed thathe was doing what was necessary to keep the peace.”

Grine’s decision said police testimony made it clear that rioterswere becoming more disorderly around Felletter’s camera.

“That, however, is not Defendant’s fault, and is theresponsibility of those who were at the riot and actually actingdisorderly,” Grine stated.

Shubin said selecting someone for removal specifically because they area member of the press was “legally problematic and fatal to theprosecution.”

“The First Amendment … doesn’t give a member of the mediaspecial rights to be in a place where the general public is excluded, but … myclient was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of other people, and he wasselected for police contact,” Shubin said.

Centre County District Attorney Michael T. Madeira then filed a notice ofappeal opposing Grine’s decision.

Why it matters

Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP inDenver who represents news media organizations, said the press, which includesstudent press and student photojournalists, enjoy exactly the same rights as thepublic –no greater and no less.

“There cannot be discriminatory exclusion of the press from any placethat the public is allowed to be,” Zansberg said. “There can’tbe disparate treatment by the government to treat journalists differently thanthe general public.”

Even though following police instruction is imperative, Zansberg saidofficers cannot legally prohibit all coverage of riots and protests.

“Police cannot completely stop the press from covering an event ofthis type,” Zansberg said. “There has to be somewhere where astudent photographer, such as Mr. Felletter, can lawfully document the actionsof the police and the protesters.”

San Francisco State University


A 22-year-old San Francisco State University student who was working on along-term photojournalism project and is not being named for his safety


Bayview-Hunters Point, Calif.

What happened

The 22-year-old student had been following 21-year-old Norris Bennett formonths for a project he was planning to try and sell to several publications,and was present April 17 when Bennett was shot during a dice game inBayview-Hunters Point, Calif.

Police observed the student taking photographs when they arrived at thescene. They subsequently obtained a warrant and searched his apartment and carin May, taking several items including personal photographs.

In response to the search, the student invoked California’s shieldlaw, which allows journalists to keep sources confidential and to withholdunpublished information obtained during reporting from law enforcement.

How it turned out

This summer, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Tomar Mason agreed thestudent qualified for shield law protection and ordered police to return whatthey removed from his apartment.

“He was present at a murder and [the police] went after thematerial,” said Ken Kobre, the head of the photojournalism department atSan Francisco State and a former professor of the student. “Theydidn’t think clearly about … whether they really had the rights to dothat, and apparently they don’t.”

Why it matters

Kobre said when anyone is operating as a journalist they should not beproviding materials for law enforcement –that is not their job.

“Your job is to try to maintain your sources, and the shield lawhelps you do that,” Kobre said. “[Sources’] lives might[involve] doing something that is legal or not legal, but it’s … veryimportant that the person who is giving access to the journalist knows that thismaterial won’t be turned over to the police. The journalist does not wantto be operating as an arm of the police.”

The California Supreme Court has recognized that the primary purpose of theshield law is to protect the “newsperson’s future ability to gathernews,” according to a motion to overturn the search warrant by Michael Ng,the student’s attorney.

“A reporter’s ability to gather news in environments likeHunters Point evaporates the moment a reporter is forced to become a governmentwitness about what he or she observes,” Ng stated in the motion.

Expert tips for student journalist/policeinteraction:In an event such as a riot or a protest, journalists andlaw enforcement sometimes struggle to do their jobs in the same space if thesituation gets out of hand. Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Levine SullivanKoch and Schulz who represents news media organizations, offers these tips tostudent journalists who interact with police:

Make sure you have press credentials and identify yourself to lawenforcement on the scene as early as possible.

Make it clear you are not a participant.

Be courteous and respectful.

If you are prohibited from filming or photographing from a particular areathat police are clearing, inquire where you may lawfully stand and conduct yournewsgathering activities.

Remain calm in the face of confrontations between police and protesters. Itnever helps to add fuel to the fire.

If you anticipate police-protester confrontations, contact law enforcementin advance to come up with a plan ahead of time and to avoid surprises andimprovised rule-making in the field.