But For Video: The Passive/Aggressive Freep

Mandi Wright, a photographer for the Detroit Free Press, learned a bit of a lesson about what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a cop, as she recorded a person being arrested and placed into a police cruiser.

This requires a bit of a breakdown, as the initial interaction, where she states she’s with Freep, yet told to turn off the camera, shows a legit journalist aghast at not being allowed to do her job. The recording ends with captured sound  of her saying “are you touching me? I’m sorry…”

Stopping at this point, one can well understand her shock and anger at being stopped and manhandled. Normally, this would be a sympathetic moment, with the only commentary being that reporters often forget that the same rights that inure to them apply to everyone.

While they are ready to go scorched earth when it’s one of their legit journalists, they rarely feel the same level of concern or empathy when it’s a non-journo doing the videotaping.  Unfortunately, they fail to see how rights either apply to everyone or not. As happened here, journalists aren’t always “special.”

But then Wright’s post-hoc rationalization goes seriously awry:

Wright later said she didn’t know the man approaching her was a police officer and thought he was an angry civilian. He didn’t identify himself on the tape, and his clothes carried no police insignia.

Is she suggesting that it would have been different if she knew he was a cop? Is she suggesting that the same right to video police action on a public street ceases when a cop says so?

And the story devolves from there:

At the station, Wright said, she shared an interrogation room with the suspect. An officer interviewed her in front of the man, asking for personal information, including her home address and name.

As her editor says in the video interview, the man was charged with a felony. So? While it’s wildly inappropriate that Wright have been arrested and held at all, and similarly inappropriate they she be warehoused with the suspect, he’s impugned for the wrong reason. Just as Wright was wrongly arrested, where does she (or her editor) come off assuming her innocence and his guilt?  She was certainly handled wrongly, and yet they are fully prepared to accept without question that the other guy is a heinous criminal?

When Wright got her iPhone back, she found that her SIM card was gone. It didn’t mean the video was gone, as that was saved on the hard drive, but it’s a project getting the SIM card out and whoever decided to make her video disappear found the effort worthwhile. This gave rise to an internal investigation, because it’s a huge mystery what happened to it.

So after eight hours, Wright was freed without charges, her phone was returned without its SIM card and Deputy Chief James Tolbert expressed that the police were “embarrassed” by what happened. The Freep folks remains irate:

Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Free Press, said the situation should not have escalated as it did.

“First, our photographer was doing what any journalist — or any citizen — has a right to do in a public place,” he said. “All she knew was that someone had grabbed her and her phone. We understand the difficult job that police officers do, and we understand how tensions can rise. Yet some of the police actions all through this incident need scrutiny — not the actions of our photographer.”

Hershel Fink, Free Press legal counsel, said courts in the U.S. have consistently agreed that “citizens, much less the press, have a right to photograph police officers in public places. The video shows she did not interfere with the police action and the officer had no right to order her to stop filming and to confiscate her camera.”

All true, but all raising a troubling question: If all these rights and concerns apply to “citizens, much less the press,” where is the shock and anger when the story doesn’t involve Freep reporters, when the person wrongfully “touched,” arrested and held isn’t on their payroll, when the person isn’t released and their camera isn’t returned?

Is it possible that when the person arrested doesn’t have press credentials, they are more like the “felon” in the same room who they assume to be a bad dude than their reporter whose rights have been trampled but they know to be a maligned innocent?  Not everybody gets a statement from the deputy chief that the cops are embarrassed. Most get bail.


11 comments on “But For Video: The Passive/Aggressive Freep

  1. C. N. Nevets

    The press are protected by the First Amendment. If they’re housed with felons, the terrorists win.

    Other people don’t have their own amendment. So. Meh.

      1. ExCop-LawStudent

        Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589 (1978) (press has no greater right to information than the general public); Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011) (citizens have First Amendment right to film police in public); Fordyce v. City of Seattle, 55 F.3d 436 (9th Cir. 1995) (there is a right to openly record what occurs in a public place); Smith v. City of Cumming, 212 F.3d 1332 (11th Cir. 2000) (citizens have First Amendment right to film police in public).

  2. Jim Majkowski

    Even if you have press credentials, but your paper is less important…

    On election day in 2008, a Detroit journalist (for a much smaller paper than The Detroit Free Press) had an unhappier time with the Michigan State Police:

    On election day James Willingham, 42, was driving home from the polls in Detroit around 3:30 pm on his motorcycle when he was allegedly hit by a police car with such force that he struck and killed a pedestrian, Jeffrey Frazier, and then crashed into a pole and died from the impact. When Diane Bukowski, a white journalist for the black newspaper Michigan Citizen, heard the news on a black radio station, she rushed to the scene on the corner of Justine and East Davison. The first print reporter to arrive, she showed her credentials and started taking photographs. A female state trooper yelled at her from across the street, “Who the **** (my edit) do you think you are?” Bukowski again identified herself as a journalist. “I didn’t cross any police tape,” says Bukowski. “I was just doing my job.” The trooper grabbed the camera, deleted the photos, handcuffed Bukowski, arrested her on a single misdemeanor count of obstructing an investigation and took her to state police headquarters, where she was held for about an hour.

    Bukowski was 60 years old and stands at around 5 feet 4 inches. A few days after her arrest, her charge was ramped up to five felony counts of assaulting, wounding, battering, resisting, obstructing or endangering five troopers, carrying up to ten years in prison. The idea of this small woman single-handedly battering five armed troopers would be funny if it weren’t so absurd. The charges were reduced to two troopers following a preliminary exam.

    She was convicted of felony resisting and obstructing, and the conviction was affirmed on appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals (disobedience of a police officer’s “lawful command”).

  3. Paul B.

    So the LEO who arrested her for no good reason, and stole her phone is going to be charged with kidnapping and armed robbery, right?


    1. Noah Kovacs

      No because he is an officer so that makes him “above the law”
      Stuff like this makes me sick!

      1. SHG Post author

        Now this is funny. I was thinking about tossing the initial comment because it’s got no place on a blawg. It’s angry, pointless, uninformed and unilluminating. And here you are, adding insult to injury. There are plenty of blogs for angry people who have nothing to add to a legal discussion, but not this one.

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