Thanks to Friday night’s little soiree between one overzealous member of the Suffolk County police corps and a working member of the media, Long Island is yet again thrust into the viral spotlight for embarrassing misdeeds. This time, it’s an attack on First Amendment rights.
Suffolk didn’t win its reputation as the ‘wild west’ easily. No, it earned it the hard way, as home to more than a generous helping of political scandal, police corruption, serial killers and that ugly little mystery which migrated to its white-sand shores, the Montauk Monster.
Now, just when the immediate world is bickering over what should become of the Nassau Coliseum, Suffolk manages to step in and overshadow the vote on the other county’s future: A news photographer working the scene of a police chase is denied access by one police officer and later arrested.
The charge? Government obstruction.
The crime? Best as I can tell, it was committed by the man in blue.
For those keeping score, the police can dictate where and how close the media can come to covering the scene of a crime. In this particular instance, however, the scene was on the street – as public a place as anyone could conjure – and passersby were free to wander the area. Yet, it was the lone photographer singled out by one police officer. On video, the photographer is depicted as freely cooperating with the police officer’s wishes. On video, the officer continually tells the photographer to ‘push back.’ On video, the photographer continually asks where he should stand. Not long after that, he’s arrested.
Anyone has the right to video in public spaces – journalist, citizen journalist, blogger and John Q. Public all enjoy the same rights on this one.
To see such rights so violently demeaned says something is radically wrong in Suffolk.
There have been many indications that the First Amendment turns into gray area once you cross the 110 corridor.
There’s the little village to the south that tried to ban media coverage of its public meetings. Yes, you read that right. This one’s a particular favorite, best explained by the wording of the proposed resolution itself: The politicos wanted to avoid any possible “embarrassment.” Best for the village, yes; but bad for the public interest. It certainly makes you wonder what’s really happening behind closed doors in Town Hall, doesn’t it?
There’s the newspaper that superimposed a politician into a photograph taken at an event the politician didn’t actually attend. Best for the politician, of course. But bad for the public. Worse, for the newspaper industry, which is struggling to find a reason to live.
How about a certain East End newspaper that, once informed it had aggravated one of its readers via a contributor columns, took it upon itself to inform said reader – get this, another favorite – that editing the work of a freelancing contributor is a violation of the First Amendment. (No, it’s not.)
Scores of such silliness stand out over time, but the real message is this: The public – now more than ever before – needs a solid understanding of its rights and privileges as defined by the First Amendment. Compounding the issue is the prevalence of social media and the internet, where the unknowing easily turn into virtual prey.
Care, too, must be taken by members of the media. While Friday night’s mishap involved a credentialed photographer, few members of the media carry such credentials these days. Many, too – and as illustrated in the video, seen on You Tube – are lax about fully identifying themselves. In these days of revolving-door newsrooms, it’s up to the veterans to teach the newbies proper reporting techniques.
This, really, has little to do with being arrested, and everything to do with not being stopped from doing a job to protect the public’s right to know.