Officials vs. a free press

Newspaper reporters and photographers are accustomed to navigating a range of obstacles in the course of covering newsworthy events, so they learn to take most roadblocks and hassles in stride. But when zealous public officials and police authorities overreach their authority and make up imaginary rules to thwart legitimate news-gathering activities on behalf of the public interest, that cannot be overlooked. News gathering is a core constitutional right of a free press. That right must be respected if the news media is to fulfill its public responsibilities and do its jobs.

This paper's tireless work to report the unprecedented extent of tornado damage and its costly and painful human toll here last week provides several cases that illustrate such wrong-headed interference by public officials.

Last Thursday, one of our reporters, Kate Harrison, was following volunteers cleaning up debris in the heavily damaged Apison area when she was confronted by three veteran, high-ranking public officials who ordered her to stop taking photographs. The officials - Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd and Hamilton County's director of emergency services, Don Allen - clearly should have known that Harrison's work was constitutionally protected. That they could occupy such high positions and not know, or care about, or respect the nation's First Amendment rights boggles the mind.

Harrison also was commanded by emergency services spokeswoman Amy Maxwell not to publish any of the photographs she had taken, and later was threatened with arrest. (We published one of Harrison's photos.)

All these actions were an unconstitutional infringement on Harrison's and this newspaper's right and ability to serve the vital functions of a free press.

Harrison was in a public area where other members of the public were moving about freely. Police had not officially cordoned off the area; members of the public could come and go as they pleased. Courts have long recognized that in such public circumstances, reporters and photographers, including freelancers, have a constitutional right to observe, report and photograph anything the public is permitted to observe.

That's a simple, reasonable and well-established rule of the road for news-gathering activities. Police and public officials should know and respect it. It embodies the essence of the media's responsibility to serve as the information conduit to readers, subscribers and viewers about events in the public sphere that shape and affect our lives and communities.

In a similar incident on the same day, another member of our news staff - photographer Allison Carter - was threatened with arrest by a Catoosa County deputy sheriff if she did not cease photographing tornado damage at a Food Lion shopping center, and if she did not delete the pictures she had taken from her camera.

Carter, like Harrison, was in a public space with other members of the public, and she was in no way interfering with the deputy's work. Deputy Brown (Carter didn't get his first name, but she got his badge number) should have known that Carter was entitled to perform her news-gathering work for the paper. If Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers' deputies don't know and respect First Amendment rights, then surely they need a lesson in them.

We don't make these complaints public without a reason. In fact, the news media's rights in this country are protected because they are the public's rights; because they serve the public interest - of readers, viewers and citizens generally - to know what is happening in their communities and public offices, and what is happening to their fellow citizens and environment in the public sphere.

Public information is an essential element of the glue that holds the public interest together, and that further serves to inform, advance and protect it. It is part and parcel of this nation's democratic fiber, soul and spine. Citizens' rights to know, indeed, is what separates a free country from those with autocratic leaders and tyrants who can quietly cover up misdeeds and, in many countries, make opponents disappear.

The right to a free press, like the other First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, of religion, of public assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances, are all bound together. Reporters in other countries often put their lives at risk to serve the public's right to know: 102 journalists around the world were killed doing their jobs last year.

Fortunately, our reporters and photographers rarely face perilous hazards. And like most responsible journalists, they generally respect police and officials who provide emergency services. But wrongful repression of a free press in any form is not allowed under the Constitution, and it cannot be tolerated. It squelches the public interest. And if tolerated, it would steadily encroach further and further on the public's right to know.