Newspaper photog loses First Amendment claim

An Oakland Tribune photographer arrested while taking pictures at the scene of a car accident losts his lawsuit against the City of Oakland Tuesday, and I agree with the judgement.

According to court papers:

Plaintiff is a staff photographer for the Oakland Tribune. On May 4, 2007, he was driving northbound on highway 880 when traffic in all four lanes came to a complete stop. He observed one car stopped in front of him, an overturned car, and a woman on the ground. Plaintiff exited his stopped car and approached the scene. He observed that the overturned vehicle was blocking lanes 1 and 2. He also observed the occupants of at least six other cars exit their vehicles.

Plaintiff wore his press pass lanyard around his neck and placed his press parking pass issued by the Oakland Police Department in the windshield of his car. He began taking photographs of the scene for the Tribune.

Then, according to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press:

Oakland police officer Kevin Reynolds told him to leave the scene, even after Chavez, who was wearing a press pass, claimed he had a right to be there.

When Chavez began taking pictures of an ambulance that had arrived, Reynolds blocked his lens and started writing a citation. When Chavez then began photographing the arrival of a California Highway Patrol car, Reynolds grabbed his camera and said, “That’s it. You’re under arrest. You don’t need to take these kinds of pictures.”

Chavez was handcuffed and seated at the accident scene for a half-hour. He said drivers who assumed he was responsible for the wreck cursed at him as they passed. When he was finally cited and released, Reynolds said, “Don’t ever come here again to take these kind [of] photos.”

U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer ruled in part that Chavez:

does not offer any evidence that suggests that the general public had a right to exit their vehicles on the freeway and stand in the freeway to take photographs.

And I agree, sort of. Chavez should have pulled off to the side, out of the way of emergency vehicles, (later in court papers, the prosecution argued Chavez’s car blocked a fire truck) and parked with his hazard lights on.

I certainly believe Chavez had a First Amendment right to be there. But he was inappropriate in leaving his car parked in the middle of a freeway, even if he thought traffic wasn’t moving. He should have pulled off to the side, away from the accident.

In Virginia, there are certain specific, albeit limited, exemptions for the press when it comes to stopping near an emergency. But as a journalist, we still need to be responsible to stay out of the way of traffic and emergency vehicles – and be aware of how we’re going to get out of the area once we’re done.

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