In what was seen as a victory for First Amendment rights, the U.S. government agreed Thursday to pay The Blade $18,000 for seizing the cameras of a photographer and deleting photographs taken outside the Lima tank plant last year.
In turn, The Blade agreed to dismiss the lawsuit it filed April 4 in U.S. District Court on behalf of photographer Jetta Fraser and reporter Tyrel Linkhorn against Charles T. Hagel, then the U.S. Secretary of Defense; Lt. Col. Matthew Hodge, commandant of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, and the military police officers involved in the March 28, 2014, incident.
Fritz Byers, attorney for The Blade, said the settlement was made under the First Amendment Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits the government, in connection with the investigation of a criminal offense, from searching or seizing any work product materials possessed by a journalist.
“The harassment and detention of The Blade’s reporter and photographer, the confiscation of their equipment, and the brazen destruction of lawful photographs cannot be justified by a claim of military authority or by the supposed imperatives of the national security state,” Mr. Byers said.
RELATED: Read a full copy of the settlement
“The Blade is pleased with this resolution of the crucial First Amendment issues at stake in this matter,” Mr. Byers said.
John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said he was "very happy it's resolved," but wished the government would admit wrongdoing.
"We appear to know more about the U.S. Constitution than responsible federal defense officials. I wish they could admit in this instance, in any instance, that they were wrong and violated our rights."
Blade officials said $5,000 of the settlement would be donated to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Based in Arlington, Va., the committee works to protect journalists’ free speech rights as well as access to public records, meetings, and courtrooms.
The remainder of the settlement will be shared by the Blade staff members detained, and will not be used to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.
The First Amendment Privacy Protection Act allows those who sue under it to recover a minimum of $1,000 per violation or actual monetary losses.
Mr. Byers said that even in the context of military police officers acting to protect the safety of a military facility, “The government may not do what it did in this case.”
Mr. Linkhorn and Ms. Fraser were in Lima to cover a news conference at a Ford Motor Co. plant and had gone to take photos of area businesses for future use, including pictures of the tank plant known as the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center.
Ms. Fraser took several photos from the entry area of the plant, and the pair were leaving when they were stopped by three military police officers and questioned.
Ms. Fraser showed the officers her Blade identification, but initially declined to provide her driver’s license. She was not driving, and was removed from her vehicle and handcuffed for more than an hour.
During the confrontation, the officers repeatedly referred to Ms. Fraser in the masculine gender. She objected and was told by one officer, “You say you are a female. I’m going to go under your bra.”
The officers confiscated two cameras, memory cards, a pocket-sized personal calendar, and a notebook.
Ms. Fraser declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, which includes the stipulation that The Blade agrees “not to publish, distribute, reproduce, sell, or share any of the photographs taken of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio, on March 28, 2014.”
Mr. Linkhorn said he believed the settlement “shows Army officials recognized they should not have destroyed our photographs, especially those which had nothing to do with the tank plant. I'm pleased The Blade is donating a portion of the settlement to protect a free press.”
“While it bothers me that the government believes photographing something anyone can easily see from the street should be prohibited, I have a great respect for those serving in our military and the sacrifices they make,” he added.
Mike Tobin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office, which represented the defendants in the case, declined to comment, saying a letter sent by the U.S. Army to Ms. Fraser, Mr. Linkhorn, and Kurt Franck, executive editor and vice president of The Blade, speaks for itself.
The letter, dated Feb. 25 and signed by Col. Ronald J. Shun, chief of staff for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, does not contain an apology, but states that the Army “takes seriously its obligation to protect its military installations” and “acknowledges the important role that the press serves in a free society.”
“The Army is interested in a positive relationship with The Blade, its employees, and all members of the media,” Colonel Shun wrote.
“In accordance with its policies and procedures, the Army will respond to press requests to visit or take photographs at JSMC, and the Army will make every effort to answer appropriate questions about its operations there.”
In another First Amendment case involving a Blade photographer, the National Transportation Safety Board in 1997 apologized to the newspaper and photographer Herral Long for seizing film from his camera at the scene of a plane crash at Monroe’s Custer Airport.
As part of a settlement with the newspaper, the NTSB and the state of Michigan paid The Blade and Mr. Long a total of $26,000 for violating his constitutional rights.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.
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