National Press Club

Attorney details backlash against photojournalists

January 26, 2012 | By John M. Donnelly | jdonnelly@cq.com

Mickey Osterreicher (c) discussed defending photographers' rights. Darlene Shields (l) chairs the Club's Photography Committee. John Donnelly (r) is chair of the Freedom of the Press Committee.

Mickey Osterreicher (c) discussed defending photographers' rights. Darlene Shields (l) chairs the Club's Photography Committee. John Donnelly (r) is chair of the Freedom of the Press Committee.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

A “perfect storm” of repression has raged against photojournalists in the United States in recent years, according to an accomplished news photographer who has become an attorney representing his former colleagues.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, a counsel with with Hiscock & Barclay, LLP, and general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association, told a National Press Club audience on Jan. 25 that homeland security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks have led police in many cases to treat people taking pictures in certain public spaces — whether journalists or not -- as potential threats.

“The war on terrorism has somehow morphed into the war on photography,” he said at the event, which was cosponsored by two Club panels, the Photography and Press Freedom committees.

Osterreicher, who has 40 years experience as an award winning photojournalist, said that police in many cases do not understand that the press and the citizenry alike have a right to take pictures in public, as long as their image-gathering is not doing something harmful, such as impeding police making an arrest or paramedics helping an accident victim.

The proliferation of smart phones capable of taking pictures and video (and potentially making them “go viral” instantly) have made videographers of practically every citizen, he said. Police are aware of how their images may show up on YouTube, and they don’t always like it, he said.

As a result of the spread of this technology and police antipathy to it--and often to the press itself-- there has been a backlash, he said.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have exacerbated the situation, he said. Improperly trained police have mistreated, detained and sometimes arrested photographers and other reporters who were merely doing their jobs.

Non-journalists taking pictures have also gotten swept up. Typically, the charge — something like trespassing or disturbing the peace — ends up getting dropped. But the spread of such cases has impeded news-gathering and, Osterreicher said, may have kept some great news shots from being taken.

“The problem is, you’ve got this catch-and-release program going on, which basically stops photographers from doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is record the news,” he said.

Osterreicher is reacting to abuses by taking legal action but also proactively working to help train police forces to understand that taking pictures in public is a constitutionally protected activity.

The night of his address to the Club, for example, he was conducting one such training session with D.C. police officers.