BOSTON, MA – Freelance photojournalist Peter A. Smith, 51, has been “fired” by The Pilot, a weekly Catholic newspaper run by the Archdiocese of Boston, for releasing to the Boston Herald a photograph of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia making a controversial Italian hand gesture while he was inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Sunday.
“I can’t be fired, I’m a freelancer,” Smith told News Photographer magazine today. “They may feel that they have fired me, but there was no contract. I’ve freelanced for them for ten years and there’s never been a problem before. They have one-time rights to use any picture I shoot for them, but I still own the copyright. I still own the picture. Maybe they don’t have an understanding of that; maybe it’s not clear to them. But this is the first time something like this has happened in ten years. They’re nice, decent people over there, ethical people. So maybe they feel like I’m theirs to fire, but I’m a freelancer. They just won’t use me in the future.”
Smith is an assistant photojournalism professor at Boston University who freelanced for The Pilot for a decade. He was “fired” by the Archdiocese, a spokesman for the church said, after the Boston Herald ran Smith’s photograph of Scalia making the gesture on the front page. Editors of The Pilot and officials at the Archdiocese had made a decision not to run the photograph and to not release the picture to other media.
Smith shot the picture of Scalia making the gesture, one that some people consider to be fairly obscene, after a Herald reporter asked the judge for his response to people who question “his impartiality on matters of church and state.” Scalia responded by flicking the fingers of his hand underneath his chin, a gesture of Sicilian origin. Smith says that the justice also uttered an Italian obscenity while making the gesture, one that he heard but was not heard by the reporter.
The Herald quotes the editor of The Pilot, Antonio Enriques, as saying that Smith’s “firing” “Is nothing personal. I need to try and find people I can trust.”
“My feeling is The Pilot should have supported me because of the ethics of the situation, and I told the editor that. I didn’t really break trust with him because I called him on Wednesday to discuss the situation,” Smith said today. “He’s right that on Monday I reassured him that I would not release the picture to the media. And on Tuesday I felt the same. But on Wednesday I had a change of heart. The story had become more about the picture than the gesture and then Scalia wrote a letter to the Herald’s editor that attacked the reporter’s credibility. That’s when I changed my mind. The only way to bring clarity to the situation was to show the picture in question and show the truth.”
Rumors around Boston included one that Smith had a picture of Scalia giving “the finger.” “That’s not true,” Smith said, “and the only way in question to clarify what Scalia really did was to release the picture and let people look at it and make their own decision. Because at this point the story had become more about the picture than about the gesture. So now you can look at it and see the picture, and you see him smiling, and you can maybe decide, ‘Look, he’s just clowning around, it’s no big deal.’ Bringing clarity to the story, that’s what journalism is all about.”
The Herald today also published a story by reporter Jessica Heslam saying that the archdiocese claims there’s no proof Scalia uttered an obscenity while in the church. Smith says that he heard Scalia say, “To my critics, I say, ‘Vaffanculo,’” while making the hand gesture. “Vaffanculo” in Italian loosely means “(expletive) you.” The more literal translation is even more crude.
Smith told the newspaper that “It was pretty clear” what he heard Scalia say. “It’s inaccurate and deceptive of him to say there was no vulgarity in the moment,” Smith told the Herald.
Scalia sent a letter to the Herald’s editor claiming that their story about his hand gesture was false. “It has come to my attention that your newspaper published a story on Monday stating that I made an obscene gesture – inside Holy Cross Cathedral, no less. The story is false, and I ask that you publish this letter in full to set the record straight,” Scalia wrote.
Scalia’s letter cited author Luigi Barzini’s book, The Italians, in which it says “The extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin means: 'I couldn’t care less. It’s no business of mine. Count me out.'"
“When I gave the picture to the Herald, I knew what the fallout would be, but being in front of my students every day this was ethically the right thing to do,” Smith said today. “But my prime concern is my students. That’s my full-time job, teaching journalism.
"My students read newspapers too and they looked to me to understand the ethics involved with this situation and it wasn't academic but being played out in real time with their professor becoming increasing involved. I couldn't say one thing to them and then do another when the facts were so clearly laid out. They’re looking at me saying, ‘You know the situation. You have the picture. What are you going to do? What’s the ethical thing to do?' I’m going to miss freelancing for The Pilot, but I did the right thing. My students come first," Smith said.
Smith is a twenty-year veteran photojournalist who began photography at an advertising studio before joining the photography staff of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. Later he did travel and corporate photography from his studio base in Boston before taking the teaching position at Boston University.