Monday, August 10, 2009

Videojournalist Arrested While Shooting Healthcare Protest

Those Congressional healthcare reform public forums are getting ugly, with protesters disrupting and shouting down legitimate debate, and police being called in to calm things down.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch videojournalist Jake Wagman was arrested while shooting a recent such event, raising an age-old legal issue of photographer/videographer rights. (See Chapter 16 in "Photojournalism: The Professionals' Approach")

You can see Wagman's own video of protesters at a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, leading up to his arrest, here.

You can read the Post-Dispatch's story about the raucous event here, which includes an account of Wagman's arrest.

[Police spokesperson] Rich Eckhard said Wagman and a P-D photographer were repeatedly asked to back up and stop taking flash photographs because the bursts of light were making it hard for officers to see.

Wagman moved back, then came closer to the officers, he said. Eckhard did not know how close Wagman was to the officers, but said the reporter was asked several times to "stay back."

"We have to maintain the peace, we have to restore order," Eckhard said. "It's not time for debate at that time of the evening when you have assaults and people reacting to assaults."

Arnie Robbins, editor of the Post-Dispatch, issued this statement Friday.

"In arresting our reporter, we think the police overreacted and were overzealous. While we understand that police have difficult jobs and were in a volatile situation, we hope they understand that reporters, too, have difficult jobs and were in a volatile situation."

Robbins also said, "On two separate occasions, police asked our reporter to move farther away from the scene. He identified himself and complied -- he was also wearing his press badge clearly visible around his neck. On a third occasion, two police officers asked him to leave.

Before he could explain who he was and that he was standing where two other officers had told him to, a police officer counted to two, handcuffed him and arrested him. Even later, after identifying himself as a Post-Dispatch reporter, the police processed him.

"We absolutely think that our reporter handled himself responsibly. We absolutely do not think that charges are warranted," Robbins added.

Wagman was not using any type of lighting when videotaping. He said he was shooting video near a parking lot of Bernard Middle School when he was asked by a St. Louis County police officer to step back. Wagman, wearing a Post-Dispatch identification card around his neck, asked where he should stand. He was directed to an area of the sidewalk. He complied, he said.

A few minutes later, Wagman said, another officer asked him to move further away from the scene. Wagman identified himself as a reporter and did as he was told, he said.

Then two different officers approached the sidewalk where Wagman stood.

Here is Wagman's account of what happened next:

"A pair of officers began instructing everyone to leave. I asked, 'I'm not sure why I have to go.' (We were, after all, on public property - a school.)

"One of the officers responded, 'You can either leave now or come with me to jail.'

"I attempted to interject. He cut me off. He began counting. I attempted to interject again. I was unsuccessful.

"Once the officer's count reached 'two,' he grabbed my wrists and handcuffed me behind my back. My camera -- which had been recording the conversation - dropped to the ground."
Carlos Miller is a multimedia journalist who was arrested by Miami police after taking photos of them against their wishes, which he believes to be "a clear violation of my First Amendment rights." Since that arrest in Feb. 2007, he has been fighting a lengthy legal battle against the State of Florida to prove his innocence.

Miller wrote about the Wagman arrest on his Website, 'Photography is Not a Crime: It's a First Amendment Right,' where you can find archived accounts of similar situations.

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