Police vs. press

Search warrants, arrests, pepper spray -- most student journalists manage to avoid extreme situations involving law enforcement while doing their jobs. However, two college photojournalists recently found themselves in situations that highlighted tensions between the press and the police. 

Pennsylvania State University


Michael Felletter, a photographer on assignment for his campus newspaper, The Daily Collegian


Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

What happened

Felletter was charged with six misdemeanors after he covered a post-football-game riot in October 2008. His attorney said these charges violated Felletter's First Amendment rights because he was specifically targeted as a member of the press.

During the riot, police asked Felletter to disperse several times, and each time he left and resumed his coverage elsewhere. At one point, Felletter was standing on the sidewalk when an officer asked him again to leave and threatened him with pepper spray. As Felletter walked away, the officer informed him he was under arrest and demanded his drivers license, according to police testimony and Felletter's attorney, Andrew Shubin.

How it turned out

On March 4, a judge threw out Felletter's disorderly conduct charge and four of his five failure-to-disperse charges. The remaining failure-to-disperse charge was dismissed this summer by Judge David Grine.

"The Court does not believe that Defendant refused to or knowingly failed to obey dispersal orders," stated Grine in his order to grant Felletter's pre-trial motion to dismiss. "The Court believes that the arrest of Defendant was made in good faith by an officer who believed that he was doing what was necessary to keep the peace."

Grine's decision said police testimony made it clear that rioters were becoming more disorderly around Felletter's camera.

"That, however, is not Defendant's fault, and is the responsibility of those who were at the riot and actually acting disorderly," Grine stated.

Shubin said selecting someone for removal specifically because they are a member of the press was "legally problematic and fatal to the prosecution."

"The First Amendment ... doesn't give a member of the media special rights to be in a place where the general public is excluded, but ... my client was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of other people, and he was selected for police contact," Shubin said.

Centre County District Attorney Michael T. Madeira then filed a notice of appeal opposing Grine's decision.

Why it matters

Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP in Denver who represents news media organizations, said the press, which includes student press and student photojournalists, enjoy exactly the same rights as the public --no greater and no less.

"There cannot be discriminatory exclusion of the press from any place that the public is allowed to be," Zansberg said. "There can't be disparate treatment by the government to treat journalists differently than the general public."

Even though following police instruction is imperative, Zansberg said officers cannot legally prohibit all coverage of riots and protests.

"Police cannot completely stop the press from covering an event of this type," Zansberg said. "There has to be somewhere where a student photographer, such as Mr. Felletter, can lawfully document the actions of the police and the protesters."

San Francisco State University


A 22-year-old San Francisco State University student who was working on a long-term photojournalism project and is not being named for his safety


Bayview-Hunters Point, Calif.

What happened

The 22-year-old student had been following 21-year-old Norris Bennett for months for a project he was planning to try and sell to several publications, and was present April 17 when Bennett was shot during a dice game in Bayview-Hunters Point, Calif.

Police observed the student taking photographs when they arrived at the scene. They subsequently obtained a warrant and searched his apartment and car in May, taking several items including personal photographs.

In response to the search, the student invoked California's shield law, which allows journalists to keep sources confidential and to withhold unpublished information obtained during reporting from law enforcement.

How it turned out

This summer, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Tomar Mason agreed the student qualified for shield law protection and ordered police to return what they removed from his apartment.

"He was present at a murder and [the police] went after the material," said Ken Kobre, the head of the photojournalism department at San Francisco State and a former professor of the student. "They didn't think clearly about ... whether they really had the rights to do that, and apparently they don't."

Why it matters

Kobre said when anyone is operating as a journalist they should not be providing materials for law enforcement --that is not their job.

"Your job is to try to maintain your sources, and the shield law helps you do that," Kobre said. "[Sources'] lives might [involve] doing something that is legal or not legal, but it's ... very important that the person who is giving access to the journalist knows that this material won't be turned over to the police. The journalist does not want to be operating as an arm of the police."

The California Supreme Court has recognized that the primary purpose of the shield law is to protect the "newsperson's future ability to gather news," according to a motion to overturn the search warrant by Michael Ng, the student's attorney.

"A reporter's ability to gather news in environments like Hunters Point evaporates the moment a reporter is forced to become a government witness about what he or she observes," Ng stated in the motion.

Expert tips for student journalist/police interaction:In an event such as a riot or a protest, journalists and law enforcement sometimes struggle to do their jobs in the same space if the situation gets out of hand. Steve Zansberg, an attorney with Levine Sullivan Koch and Schulz who represents news media organizations, offers these tips to student journalists who interact with police:

Make sure you have press credentials and identify yourself to law enforcement on the scene as early as possible.

Make it clear you are not a participant.

Be courteous and respectful.

If you are prohibited from filming or photographing from a particular area that police are clearing, inquire where you may lawfully stand and conduct your newsgathering activities.

Remain calm in the face of confrontations between police and protesters. It never helps to add fuel to the fire.

If you anticipate police-protester confrontations, contact law enforcement in advance to come up with a plan ahead of time and to avoid surprises and improvised rule-making in the field.

Fall 2009, reports