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Keep fighting for freedom

March 11, 2012
The Leader Herald

If you thought government and public information are as accessible as they need to be and our freedom is stronger than ever, you would be wrong.

Laws, policies, anti-terrorism measures such as the Patriot Act and government resistance to openness all continue to threaten our liberty and constitutional rights.

Consider a recent report, "The Perfect Storm Threatening the Right to Photograph/Record in Public," by Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

In his report, Osterreicher cites cases in which citizens and journalists have been arrested for taking pictures or recording video on public streets or during public meetings. Among his examples:

A free-lance photojournalist was arrested by Suffolk County police on Long Island while trying to record a police investigation. While on a public street, the photojournalist was told by police to leave the area. He did, but still was arrested while recording about a block away.

Two online journalists were arrested and removed from a public meeting of the Washington, D.C., Taxicab Commission after refusing to stop photographing and recording at the meeting.

Multiple journalists have been arrested over efforts to cover the Occupy Wall Street protests. In one incident in Rochester, an RIT student reporting for his school magazine was charged with trespassing while covering a demonstration. In November, New York police arrested 26 journalists covering a police action in Zuccotti Park.

"These are but a few of the incidents happening throughout the country where citizens and journalists have been stopped, questioned, interfered with, detained and arrested while engaged in free speech/press activities," Osterreicher said in his report.

He concluded, "Widespread mistrust by police officers of the media (or anyone with a camera) and their misguided belief that photography and recording in public places may be restricted under color of law through police abuse of power will continue unless proper guidelines and policies are adopted by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. This will only come about through strong advocacy on behalf of journalists and citizens and may also require filing suit in egregious cases."

We are bringing up this issue on the first day of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Fortunately, in some cases, open-government efforts are making progress.

Local, state and federal governments, as well as schools, often make use of the Internet and post valuable information on websites.

In addition, a new state Disclosure of Records law went into effect Feb. 2. The law requires governments to make documents that will be discussed at a meeting available before the meeting upon request or on a municipal website. We've noticed many instances of compliance locally.

The fight for public information, open government, liberty and freedom never ends, however. The press and public must continue to keep up the pressure. We must not allow an erosion of rights.



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