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SPJ calls for unfettered press access stemming from recent incidents in Gulf region


For immediate release:

Kevin Z. Smith, SPJ President, 304-365-4864,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Department, 317-927-8000 ext. 211

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, is standing up for free press and citizens’ rights in light of recent public access issues in Texas and Florida. Additionally, news reports from CNN’s Anderson Cooper and other journalists suggest government and BP officials have increasingly blocked access to the reporting of news and events stemming from the Gulf oil spill.

SPJ leaders will discuss these issues at an executive committee meeting in New Orleans on July 24. If journalists or news outlets have concerns about access in the Gulf region, or would like to meet with members of the executive committee, they are encouraged to contact SPJ (see contacts above).

These are deeply troubling incidents that must stop if journalists are to do their jobs unfettered. News that is not filtered or skewed through government or company officials is essential to an informed citizenry. However, in times of national and natural disaster – such as now in the Gulf region – the need for a fully functioning free press is even greater.

In response to these conditions, SPJ leaders have put out an open letter on press access issues stemming from recent events. The letter is included below and open to publication.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

We at the Society of Professional Journalists are deeply troubled by two recent incidents in which journalists’ access to public events and places has been restricted or obstructed.

Taking pictures or video from public spaces such as sidewalks, roads, buses and subways has long been held to be a constitutionally protected exercise of free speech.

Yet, just days before the anniversary of our nation’s independence, security guards, police and individuals who claimed to be from the Department of Homeland Security accosted photographers and videographers who took pictures and footage, respectively, of a BP oil refinery in Texas and at a Miami Metro rail-system station.

In both cases, the journalists were told their activities raised concerns about “terrorism” and “public safety.”

In the Miami case, photographer Charles Ledford was told it was “against the law” for him to take photographs at a Metro station. But Miami-Dade County ordinances specifically allow photography around and on Metro trains, according to the National Press Photographers Association.

NPPA attorney Mickey H. Osterreicher wrote in a letter to the Miami-Dade Police Department that photography and videography are not “dangerous or pernicious” activities “unless accompanied by other behavior giving rise to probable cause or reasonable suspicion that would merit further investigation.”

Equating any photography or videography “with terrorism creates an atmosphere of initial distrust and suspicion, which has led to this incident and the unconstitutional actions by Miami-Dade law enforcement,” Osterreicher wrote.

“Public photography and videography is a protected First Amendment right of expression limited by reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” the lawyer emphasized.

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists fully endorse the NPPA’s view.

In the case of the Texas refinery, a BP security officer, local police and a self-identified DHS agent blocked photographer Lance Rosenfield from leaving a gas station several minutes after he took pictures of the refinery from a public road.

According to ProPublica, for whom Rosenfield was on assignment, police reviewed his pictures and recorded his personal information before releasing him. A police officer then turned over Rosenfield’s personal information to the BP security guard, citing standard procedure.

No charges were filed, but Rosenfield said he was told he would be “taken in” if he refused to comply with officers’ demands.

The Society’s leaders, like ProPublica editor-in-chief Paul Steiger, appreciate the security concerns of refineries and other national infrastructure, but are alarmed by BP’s conduct and the conduct of law enforcement and the alleged Homeland Security agent.

What happened in both incidents not only violated these journalists’ rights as members of the press and as citizens, but the actions of law enforcement and private security smacks of the worst kind of intimidation.

These two incidents, along with other incidents in recent weeks in which journalists were denied access to beaches and other sites affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil leak, add to growing distrust of claims of transparency by BP and the government.

Indeed, transparency has become a cliché, but openness and unfettered access to newsworthy events and public places must remain cornerstones of our First Amendment rights.


Kevin Z. Smith
President, Society of Professional Journalists

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