Saturday, August 30, 2008

Restrictions on news-gathering going too far

The following was posted at TV Spy's ShopTalk blog by San Francisco newsman Don Knapp (pictured). He is responding to a report of an ABC News producer who was arrested by Denver cops for being on a sidewalk supposedly owned by the Brown Palace Hotel, where a lot of top Democrats were staying last week including the Clintons. The producer was part of Brian Ross's unit that is exposing payoffs to legislators. Don's comment starts now:
    This appears to be an extreme, even perverse case of access issues that have become too common with property restrictions here in the San Francisco Bay area. (ABC producer restricted at Democratic National Convention).

    Let's begin at the bottom of the list with access to shopping centers. Despite state law (based on a "free speech" court decision in the 1980 case of restrictions at the Pruneyard Shopping Center, in Campbell, Calif.) giving holders of media press passes the right to cross police and fire lines, except in cases of crime scenes, we here in Northern California fight a new battle nearly every time a story takes us to these places. Security guards are quick to tell us we can't be there.

    And police often block reporters from crossing the line by expanding the crime scene in what sometimes seems an unreasonable way, declaring an entire city block, or a public park, well beyond the area of interest, a cr! ime scene. BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, insistes on calls ahead, if news crews are coming to the stations, even though anyone with the price of the ticket is allowed through the turnstile at any time the system is running. Muni, on the other hand, God Bless 'em, rarely voices any thing when crews come on board buses and streetcars and cable cars.

    There are locations in San Francisco — the public sidewalks around the downtown Embarcadero Center, and at least one park (Jackson Square) that is privately owned, but open to the public on an everyday basis — where security guards will even chase away crews that have come for a pleasant background for an interview, or to do a "standup" which may or may not relate to the property. It's happened to me, a couple of times. Certainly, we crystal clear decisions on what the law is, and a massive information program to make it clear to police and security guards that we have t! he right to be there.

    Earlier this year, an associate at another station, Wayne Freedman at KGO, and cameraman Craig Southern, were arrested and had their camera confiscated, after Napa County Sheriff's deputies declared them too close to a wild fire. Did they have the safety of the crew at heart? Or were they just muscling them around? Fortunately, for all of us reporters and photographers here in the Bay Area, Craig and Wayne loudly resisted, before being handcuffed and hauled away. I'm not sure what the eventual outcome of the case was, in terms of the legal actions that followed, but I can tell you this: For most of this summer, fires and areas on the other side of police lines have been much more accessible.

    And, oh, by the way, about those sidewalks around private buildings that have that little thing in concrete that says, permission to pass by owner and revokable at any time? The point is, if the sidewalk is open to the public, it is open to us. Do members of the fourth estate have fewer first amendment rights than everyone else? Thanks, Asa Eslocker, for resisting, and making a stand. And thanks to the crew for shooting the scene. Looking forward to your story.

    Don Knapp
    San Francisco


Tricia said...

All excellent points! Thank you very much for your post. But it seems that journalists will remain on the losing side of this issue -since sidewalks and public areas are increasingly being deemed "private" with the steamrolling of the pritatization of American properties.

Anonymous said...

here's the problem -- the law is settled on issues like whether a news photographer can stand on a sidewalk and take pictures ... that's perfectly legal ... but when law enforcement literally pushes the photographer into the street, and away from the subject being photographed, as in the case involving ABC News and the Democratic Party donors, there's no recourse for the journalist. ... the photographer is jailed, thereby denying him the opportunity to cover the story ... then he is released, charges are dropped, his boss issues an apology and, if there is a lawsuit, the government pays the settlement in tax dollars from the very people whose right to know had been denied ... so there's nothing stopping the cop from doing the same thing next time ...

I'd like to know what happened to the Napa County deputies who jerked Wayne Freedman and Craig Southern around ... I'll bet nothing than maybe a letter being placed in their personnel file ...

Anonymous said...

in the post above I meant that the cop's boss apologizes, not the photographer's