If you drive down Buckeye Road at the southern edge of Lima, Ohio, you’ll pass an industrial complex where General Dynamics makes armored vehicles for the U.S. military. But if you stop and take a photograph, you just might find yourself detained by military police, have your camera confiscated and your digital photos deleted. Which is exactly what happened to two staffers for the Toledo Blade newspaper on Friday, in an unacceptable violation of the First Amendment and common sense.
According to the Blade, staff writer Tyrel Linkhorn and photographer Jetta Fraser had just covered a news event at another Lima-area factory and decided to take photos of other businesses for future use, a common media practice. Linkhorn, who was driving, pulled into a circular driveway at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center — also known as the Lima Army Tank Plant — and stopped short of an unmanned security booth. Fraser took her photos, and as they were preparing to leave they were approached by military police. The staffers, who were wearing credentials from their newspaper, identified themselves as journalists. Fraser, who was in the passenger seat, refused a request for her driver’s license because she wasn’t driving; she was subsequently handcuffed and removed from the car. After more than an hour, the two were allowed to leave — but without Fraser’s cameras. When the equipment was finally retrieved seven hours later, the photos of the tank plant, and of another location, had been deleted.
Several lines were crossed here. Law enforcement officials have the right, even the responsibility, to investigate suspicious activity. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a person with a camera standing in broad daylight taking a photograph of something openly visible to the public — indeed, which is visible to the world through Google Maps — clears the hurdle of suspicious activity. And to delete the work of a photojournalist is indefensible.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. In the years since 9/11, various police agencies have acted with occasional callous disregard for the First Amendment rights of journalists and photojournalists, as well as citizens documenting public occurrences — particularly police activities.
The Blade has filed a complaint with the FBI, and we urge a quick and detailed investigation followed by a public accounting. But we also urge law enforcement officials at all levels to reacquaint themselves with the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists, and to issue new policies and training directives as necessary.