Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), spoke at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 2012 where he warned NPC members of ongoing issues concerning copyright infringement and the assault on the right to photograph in public places.
“It’s vital for citizens and journalists to know their rights when taking pictures or recording in public places. It’s even more crucial that police departments have appropriate policies and continuously train their officers regarding those rights,” Osterreicher said following the speech.
Osterreicher, who spoke to the NPC last January on a similar topic paid particular attention to the increasing prevalence of police interfering with the rights of the public and the media to photograph in public places. He noted that there have been a growing number of arrests of citizens and photographers who take pictures, particularly those who have documented activist gatherings such as the Occupy protests.
Osterreicher attributed the increase in these incidents to the widespread proliferation of cameras and smartphones, which make it possible for anyone to photograph and record matters of public concern and then provide that material to the rest of the world via the Internet. He said that police nationwide have shown a reluctance to allow such documentation, and have often responded with hostility and threats of arrest.
“I think it’s the culture of the police,” Osterreicher said. “Their idea of serve and protect often means protecting people and other officers from having their pictures taken.”
The NPPA has come to the defense of many of these photographers, both professional and amateur, because of its belief that government officials should never be left to determine what is or is not a newsworthy picture or story. The organization urges offending police departments to drop charges and to adopt policies that do not interfere with the public’s right to photograph.
Osterreicher talked about training sessions he has held with several police departments on how to interact with the press, his work with the Chicago Police and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press during the NATO Summit and his preparations for the upcoming national political conventions.
He said he offers this service whenever he writes to police departments that have had incidents with photographers. “People ask me ‘Why do you write so many letters?’” Osterreicher said. ”Well, the answer is that it’s cheaper than bringing a lawsuit. It’s cheaper for everyone, but as the police so often say ‘we can do this the easy way or the hard way,’ I think that a letter is the easy way but in some recently filed lawsuits NPPA has provided support against those departments and officers who blatantly violated our members’ constitutional rights.”
Osterreicher also spoke about instances in which police have taken cameras and phones and deleted photos or compelled the person who took the photos to do so. He reminded members of the NPC that under no circumstances do officers have the right to delete or destroy photographs or video.
Osterreicher said that he is hopeful that incidents like these decline once police are educated and trained regarding the rights of the press and public to photograph and record.
“The police aren’t going anywhere. The media isn’t going anywhere. We need to find a way to do our jobs without interference.”