Photographers can protect themselves by keeping a few things in mind





Photojournalists are often faced with tough choices when covering news stories. They must make on-the-spot decisions that affect the way important issues are covered. Knowing that student journalists have rights when it comes to pictures and film can help protect photographers against unwarranted searches and seizures and ensure that the press acts as an independent and objective reporter.

In two cases last fall, student photographers were faced with the uncomfortable prospect of turning over their unpublished pictures to others because of what the pictures could have contained. In a third case, a former student journalist sued the city of Los Angeles over pictures police confiscated from him over 20 years ago and won.

In the first case, a student photographer in California was subpoenaed for pictures he took of a crime scene. The subpoena was later dropped by authorities who said the pictures they wanted were not likely to help the prosecution’s case.

In the second case, a student photographer in Oregon was confronted by two men who demanded that he give them his camera and film after the student took pictures of a candidate for the U.S. Senate. When the student complied and turned over the equipment, the individuals immediately exposed the film. Neither the newspaper nor the university was able to discover the identity of the two men.

In the third case, a man who took pictures of Robert Kennedy’s assassination for his student newspaper was ordered to give them to Los Angeles police. 28 years later, he won his lawsuit.

Every court to rule on the subject of reporter’s privilege has said that student photographers have the same rights as professional journalists. Many courts have recognized a “qualified privilege” under the First Amendment that protects journalists from disclosing their work product.

In addition to constitutional protection, journalists in some states are protected by a “shield law” against disclosing sources, materials or information. However, neither a shield law nor a qualified privilege will always provide absolute protection. Generally, they can be overcome and reporters forced to testify if those seeking the information can demonstrate to a court that the information sought is (1) highly material and relevant, (2) necessary or critical to the maintenance of the claim and (3) not obtainable from other available sources.

In this regard, working for the student media is no different from working for the commercial media. The legal standards are the same. The pace can be as, if not more, hectic and the pressure to turn over news materials to law enforcement officials is all the more intense, since compared to full-time journalists, students may not have had the same range of experiences when confronted with difficult choices. Knowing one’s rights as a member of the student press can help guarantee that those choices, while sometimes inevitable, are made from an informed position.


reports, Winter 1996-97