Ohio prosecutor drops charges against grad student photojournalist

OHIO — Charges against an Ohio University student photojournalist who was arrested while photographing paramedics on an emergency call were dropped this week.

Paramedics and police tried to stop the graduate student, Nicolas Tanner, from photographing the scene of an emergency call in October. He continued taking pictures and was arrested and charged with obstructing official business and resisting arrest.

A jury trial was scheduled to begin today, but prosecutors decided not to proceed, Patrick McGee, Tanner’s attorney, said. It’s not clear why the charges were dropped, though multiple journalism organizations lobbied for prosecutors to do so.

City of Athens Law Director Patrick Lang and Athens City Prosecutor James Stanley could not be reached for comment.

Tanner said he has “mixed feelings” about the situation.

“Being accused of something I didn’t do is frustrating and having someone at least stop pursuing those allegations is obviously a good thing, but the other part is that in this situation, not only was I innocent, I was actually the victim of some violations,” Tanner said. “In that sense I’m unsatisfied because the city has not been held accountable for their wrong actions.”

McGee, said he was “very pleased” the charges were dropped but wished the police department would agree to training offered by attorney Mickey Osterreicher. Osterreicher serves as general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association and wrote a letter to Athens City Police Chief Thomas Pyle II in November, asking that the charges be dropped and offering training for the department.

The letter was written on behalf of several journalism organizations, including the Associated Press and the Student Press Law Center.

Representatives from the Athens City Police Department declined to comment for this story.

In an interview Wednesday, Osterreicher said he’s glad about the decision to drop the charges, but feels it should not have taken so long. And even though the outcome is in Tanner’s favor, such experiences leave photojournalists with a deep understanding of the chilling effect, Osterreicher said.

“I absolutely know from dealing with other journalists that the next time they pick up their camera, they’re always looking over their shoulder and wondering, ‘Am I going to get arrested for doing what I previously thought should never have gotten me arrested?’” Osterreicher said. “And that’s the thing we absolutely need to be vigilant about if the First Amendment is to mean anything in this country.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.