National Guardsman orders reporter to destroy photos at L.A. airport
When a Sacramento journalist bought a roundtrip ticket to Los Angeles to report firsthand how stepped-up security had affected airport procedures since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he never expected to be detained by law enforcement officials.
But R.V. Scheide, a long-time free-lancer for the Sacramento News & Review, was questioned by the California National Guard, FBI and Los Angeles Police Department, and held for three hours at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Oct. 12.
“There’d been more than a little fear and paranoia in Sacramento and I expected to find more of the same in Los Angeles,” Scheide wrote in an Oct. 25 News & Review article.
“I didn’t expect to be ordered to destroy photographs by an irate National Guardsman. I didn’t expect the Los Angeles Police Department to confiscate and read the notes I’d taken on my trip. I didn’t expect to be questioned by the FBI and detained for nearly three hours for no probable cause.”
National Guard troops and additional police officers have been placed in airports across the nation since Sept. 11 to monitor security. National Guardsmen receive only two days of Federal Aviation Administration security training before being assigned to airports, Scheide wrote in the News & Review article.
On Oct. 12, Scheide set out to report on the toughened safety measures in Sacramento and Los Angeles airports. According to Scheide, here’s what happened:
His Southwest Airlines flight left the Sacramento County Airport around 3:30 p.m. He arrived in Los Angeles around 5 p.m. and had planned to take a flight back to Sacramento 15 minutes later. But officials held him at LAX for 3 hours, saying someone on Scheide’s flight had complained that he was acting suspiciously.
During his flight to Los Angeles, Scheide took extensive notes.
A customer reported that Scheide was interviewing passengers on the flight, according to Nancy Castle, airport director of public relations, who told freedomforum.org that passengers “didn’t understand” Scheide’s questions and complained to a flight attendant.
But Scheide said he never interviewed any passengers on the plane. “I figured that probably wouldn’t be proper,” Scheide told freedomforum.org.
When Scheide exited the airplane, he checked the departure schedule and discovered that he had only 15 minutes before his return flight.
He went to the security checkpoint to take notes and to photograph the armed National Guardsmen on duty. He assumed he would have no problems. After all, he had done the same in Sacramento.
“I figured I’d snap a few pictures of the LAX security checkpoint and board my return flight,” Scheide said in the article. “I figured wrong.”
After he took a picture with his digital camera of the four guardsmen at the checkpoint, he turned to head back to the gate for his departing flight. But before he could leave he heard a loud voice say, “Hey you! What are you doing?”
One of the guardsmen was upset that Scheide had taken his picture. Scheide told the guard that he was a journalist, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“You can’t take pictures here,” the guard told him.
“Says who?” Scheide asked.
“Says me,” the guard yelled.
“He moved next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder, so he could view the camera’s display screen,” Scheide wrote.
“You are going to show me the pictures you took, you are going to delete the pictures you took, and you are going to show me that they are deleted!” the guard shouted. Scheide explained to the guardsman that the airport was a public place and that there were no signs posted prohibiting picture-taking.
That didn’t matter to the guard. “Either you delete the photos, or I’m taking you to a room, and you can talk to my superiors,” the guard told him. “You can talk to the FBI.”
Scheide then deleted all of his photographs. “Nobody could have been identified,” he told freedomforum.org. “They were all blurry and probably weren’t even usable.”
If there were no signs indicating that pictures were not to be taken in the airport, “then no one, including Scheide, should have been prohibited from taking photos,” said Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with freedomforum.org.
After showing the guard his airplane ticket, Scheide was allowed to board his return flight to Sacramento. But just as the plane was about to pull out of the gate, a Southwest Airlines employee asked Scheide to exit the aircraft.
Several LAPD officers and California National Guardsmen were waiting for Scheide as he exited the plane. Los Angeles Police Officer Brennan, identified in Scheide’s story only by her last name, told Scheide that passengers on both of his flights had complained about his “suspicious behavior.” But Brennan would not reveal who had complained.
“They said you were going through overhead compartments and writing things down,” Brennan told Scheide.
But Scheide told her he had not touched the overhead compartment. “And since when is writing in a notebook considered suspicious activity?” he asked the officer.
Brennan then told Scheide that they would have to detain him. LAPD Officer Ramirez, also identified only by his last name, confiscated Scheide’s notebook and asked if he had any press credentials. But Scheide is a free-lance journalist and doesn’t carry credentials. He told the officers that he didn’t “need press credentials to be in an airport.”
“This whole credentialing issue is not new, but in some ways, I think it’s a red herring,” Kirtley said. When free-lancers try to exercise “special access privileges” given to news organization representatives, they sometimes have trouble persuading officials that they qualify, she added.
After an hour, Lt. Joseph Peyton, the LAPD duty incident commander, arrived. Scheide told him that Ramirez had taken his notebook. Peyton immediately returned the notes to Scheide.
Peyton told Scheide he would be free to go after the FBI cleared him. Before he was cleared, Angela Karp, the Southwest Airlines station manager for LAX, approached the group and refunded Scheide’s return fare to Sacramento. Because of his “behavior” Southwest had barred him from all flights out of LAX for the rest of the evening, she told him.
“As a private business, Southwest has the right to refuse service to anyone,” Karp told Scheide.
“They were giving me the boot,” Scheide said.
By now, the FBI had arrived. Agent Anthony Gordon told Scheide “the entire nation was on high alert,” Scheide wrote. “Everyone’s nerves were frayed,” Gordon said.
Gordon told Scheide that taking photographs at the checkpoint was legal, but the National Guardsman who forced him to delete the pictures had served on the California National Guard’s Counter-Drug Task Force and was worried that drug dealers might recognize his photograph in the newspaper.
The investigation was over, Gordon told him, and Scheide was free to go.
He found another flight to Sacramento on United Airlines, which left at 10:05 p.m. He waited an hour in line at the security checkpoint and returned to Sacramento with no further problems.
The entire experience “seemed surreal, unbelievable and possibly illegal,” Scheide said.
Castle said that until the Scheide incident, no one had been asked to delete film at the airport in the six years she had worked there. “It was a surprise to me that [the guard] would request that,” she told freedomforum.org.
But since Scheide had “deprived” the guard of his right to privacy, then the guard had a right to “deprive Scheide of his First Amendment rights,” Castle said. “Just because you’re in the media doesn’t mean you can do anything you want,” Castle said.
“Airport workers are very jittery now, and when people behave in such a way that looks suspicious, that raises a lot of suspicion,” Castle said. “Airlines simply aren’t putting up with that kind of behavior. I think people need to be sensitive to that, and obviously Mr. Scheide wasn’t.”
But David A. Elder, regents professor at Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, said the guardsman had no right to privacy.
“When you’re a National Guardsman on public display with a weapon you don’t have the expectation of privacy in a public setting,” Elder said. “The overview of common law is that whether you’re a public employee or not, when you’re photographed in public places, you’re entitled to no protection (of privacy),” Elder said.
Also, California law prohibits judges from issuing search warrants for “notes, outtakes, photographs, tapes and other data … not itself disseminated to the public through a medium of communication,” said Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California First Amendment Center, as quoted in Scheide’s article.
“Clearly, they had no right to do what they did,” Francke said. “Under California law, journalists are free from search and seizure directed at unpublished information.”
But Col. Terry Knight, a spokesman for the California National Guard, defended the guardsmen’s actions.
“I’m proud of what the National Guard has done,” Knight told freedomforum.org. “I have very little patience for people being disruptive.”
Knight would not comment on whether he thought the National Guardsmen and police officers violated Scheide’s First Amendment rights.
National Guard troops have been placed in airports so flights will be safer, Knight said. “We’re called there to monitor and assist and we’re doing our best to do just that.”
“I think the most important lesson about this incident is that the guardsmen on duty obviously need more training in dealing with the public, as well as the press, and perhaps a refresher course in the First Amendment,” Kirtley said. “During times of tension … authorities and journalists sometimes clash. The best prevention for this is training and dialogue before the fact.”
Scheide does not plan to sue any of the involved parties. “I was out doing my job, and I got what I was looking for. I don’t know what purpose it would serve,” he said.