Journalism and the First Amendment

National Free Speech Week, held Oct. 19-25, is a time when Americans celebrate their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and recognize the importance of it, especially in this age of media oversaturation.

The idea of free speech, specifically the extent to which it is protected, is a hotly debated topic. The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly and the right to petition.

I spoke with Mickey Osterreicher, Esq., the general counsel for the National Press Photographer’s Association, of which I am a student member, about the significance of recognizing journalistic freedoms as a right covered under the First Amendment.

Osterreicher said, “Photography has been deemed to be a form of expression, and expression is a form of speech.”

In recent years, photography has been seen as a threat, especially to law enforcement, causing a rift between the photojournalistic world and law enforcement. However, there are ways in which both parties can embrace photography – through the use of body cameras.

Body cameras on law enforcement officers can provide a more objective view of interactions between police and the public they serve, and determine whether an abuse of power has occurred. Just as easily, they can protect law enforcement officers from being wrongly accused of abuse of power or brutality.

Recently, many journalists have been restricted in their ability to operate under the First Amendment. On Aug. 4, 2012, New York Times photographer Robert Stolarik was photographing an arrest in the Bronx. At this time, he was assaulted and arrested by NYPD police officer Michael Ackerman, who confiscated his camera and press credentials, impeding his ability to perform his job. Stolarik was charged with resisting arrest, but this charge was later dismissed.

Ackerman later bolstered his case by claiming that Stolarik fired his camera’s flash, attempting to blind him. But, as it turns out, Stolarik did not actually have an external flash with him, nor did his camera have one built in. This was shown in the image data generated by the camera at the time of the shutter.

Ackerman was indicted by a grand jury on a number of counts, including filing a false report, of which he was later convicted. His sentencing hearing will be held on Dec. 2.

“I hope that it sends a message to other officers to be respectful,” said Osterreicher.

What we need to remember is that journalists, including photojournalists, are some of the most powerful voices protected by the First Amendment. Journalism can be used as a free speech tripwire, detecting infringement before it happens to the rest of the nation. This is why it is referred to as the “Fourth Estate.”

Supporting honest journalism is supporting our basic human rights and advocating for our own freedom.

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