First Amendment outrage of the week: Handcuffing the press — literally — is not justice

Thursday, May 25, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original story
  • Michigan newspaper to fight seizure of photographers’ film

  • Handcuffing the press — literally — is not justice


    A St. Clair County (Mich.) judge clearly overstepped his authority last week when he issued an order that barred the photographing or filming of any juror who participated in a high-profile case involving Port Huron’s former mayor, Gerald “Ajax” Ackerman.

    The jury had already returned its verdict convicting Ackerman of 10 counts of sexual misconduct involving young girls when Circuit Judge Peter Deegan attempted to do something for which there is no precedent in Michigan law — restrict the ability of photographers to take pictures of the jurors once the trial is over.

    The judge’s order, issued on May 12, came in a case where there had been no previous attempt to keep the jurors’ identities secret. Indeed, the selection of the jury was an open process, they were not sequestered during the trial, and the judge even polled them by name after the verdict was announced.

    But before dismissing the jurors, Deegan issued the anti-photography order from the bench, warning that if “any media person” attempted to photograph or film the jurors on the case, “they would be violating my order.” He gave no reason for the order except to say he wanted “to give you (the jurors) the protection that you’re entitled to as private citizens.”

    Ironically, no photographers heard that order because they had already been barred from taking pictures inside the courthouse or inside Deegan’s courtroom. And two photographers for the Port Huron Times Herald who were setting up outside the courthouse to take pictures of the departing jurors knew nothing about the order, either — because the judge would not let anyone, including two Times Herald reporters, leave the courtroom until the jury and Ackerman had left.

    Imagine how surprised photographers Tony Pitts and Mark Rummel were, then, when they started shooting pictures of departing jurors and suddenly found themselves taken into custody by court officials, handcuffed and escorted to Deegan’s jury room, where they were detained for 20 minutes.

    “I don’t believe they resisted,” Times Herald Executive Editor Denise Richter said in an interview, “but one of the photographers told them (the court officers) that he was on public property, had the right to be doing what he was doing and they had no right to arrest him.”

    Once inside the jury room, the court officers seized the film from the cameras of Pitts and Rummel, and the film remains in the court’s possession to this day. The newspaper filed an appeal on May 23 with the 4th District Court of Appeals in Lansing seeking both to get the film back and to have Deegan’s no-photo order overturned.

    “That order still exists,” Richter said. “Right now, we couldn’t take a picture of the jury even if [a] juror invited us into his home and gave us permission. It would still be a violation of the order.”

    The treatment of the photographers in this case is particularly troubling. It certainly did not serve justice in any way. Even if the court had grounds to ban photos of the jurors, there certainly was no need to handcuff the photographers for violating an order they knew nothing about. At a minimum, Deegan was obligated to communicate his order to people affected by it before he tried to enforce it.

    But none of this would have happened in the first place if Deegan had let the Constitution be his guide.

    In its appeal, the newspaper maintains that there is no legal precedent for Deegan’s order banning pictures and filming of jurors. Although a Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled previously that such an order can be issued if the safety of jurors is at stake, “that is not an issue in this case,” Richter said.

    “It is truly difficult to believe that this happened in the United States of America, both as matters of the photographers’ individual liberty interests and their constitutional rights to gather the news,” the paper said in a lengthy brief accompanying its appeal.

    The brief also accused the trial court of “a blatant trampling of the constitutional rights of these citizens” in taking the photographers into custody and seizing their film, which the newspaper asked to be returned.

    “We continue to believe our photographers had every right to photograph the proceedings outside the courthouse,” Richter told the Associated Press. “To take photographs of public events on public property is a right we must guard carefully.”

    The next step will be for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to turn the newspaper’s appeal and brief over to a three-judge panel. The paper has asked for an immediate review, and Richter said the paper’s lawyer, Charles Kelly, is hopeful that the order will be reviewed early next week.

    In the meantime, the newspaper will continue to fume over this outrageous affront to the First Amendment, which, as so often is the case, has implications far beyond the immediate issue of whether or not anyone will see the faces of the jurors in this trial.

    “Our interest is not in photographs of jurors but in the right of the press or any citizen to take pictures of public proceedings in public places without unconstitutional interference from any court,” Richter said.

    That pretty well says it all.

    And still outraged by …

    • Get-even judge allowed to ban news team from court
      Dallas County Criminal Court Judge Jim Pruitt denies KTVT news courtroom access because it broadcast critical report — and Texas Supreme Court lets him get away with it.
    • Trying to turn reporters’ notes into ‘evidence’
      With no Kansas shield law, Wichita Eagle has little defense against prosecutors who want ‘possession’ of materials from interview with murder suspect.
    • Bookstore tries to shelve subpoena of purchase records
      It should come as no surprise that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Metro Area Drug Task Force, which operates in the Denver area, would be most anxious to do everything they could to shut down a methamphetamine laboratory and prosecute those involved in the production of the illicit drug. But however strongly one feels about the dangers of drug use, it does not justify tromping on the First Amendment in an effort to add some circumstantial evidence to the government’s case.
    • Utah thought it had license to regulate speech
      Daron Malmborg’s ‘SCNDL’ Olympics vanity plate irritated motor-vehicles officials, so they tried
      to take it away.
    • Prior restrainers, restrain yourselves
      Persistence is generally thought virtuous. But when lawmakers persist in trying to foist unconstitutional bills of wrongs on the rest of us, it’s a vice.
    • Barking up same unconstitutional tree
      Why pass bills to force people to be patriotic and religious, when the whole point of founding the USA was to let people be free?
    • Jailing journalist doesn’t serve justice
      Much more than fair trial at stake as California judge orders journalist Tim Crews to expose confidential source.
    • Cops disassemble right to protest
      Applying strange reasoning to when First Amendment ‘applies,’ Denver police order peaceful protesters to vacate public forum.
    • City’s limit on church attendance out of line
      Portland, Ore., official tries to solve neighborhood-nuisance problem by stripping worshippers of basic rights.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous – but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.

    More outrage