Journalism in the Public Interest

When the Police Control the Press


The Serbian soldier blocking the bridge cradled his AK-47 assault rifle as he delivered a ruling that brooked no argument: You cannot cross the river. Not today.

We implored him to reconsider. We are journalists. We've driven all the way from Belgrade. Here are our credentials.

No. This road is closed.

Zashto? (Why?)

Ne! (No.)

We never made it to Zvornik, the Bosnian town just across the river. When it came to press access, the final word belonged to the men with guns. As we later learned, the Serbs had plenty to hide that spring day about their activities in eastern Bosnia.

I was reminded of that instant -- admittedly a very different set of circumstances -- when we received a call last week at ProPublica from Lance Rosenfield, a freelance photographer we had hired to work in Texas City, Texas, on stories about BP's refinery there.

Rosenfield said he had been detained by local police after snapping a picture on the road into Texas City. Rosenfield said he had shown the officers and a BP security guard a letter from ProPublica that said he was on assignment. Police said he would be "taken in" if he did not let them look at the photos in his camera.

The senior officer present, Cpl. Thomas Robison, pressed Rosenfield to describe ProPublica's forthcoming story.

Rosenfield demurred but did allow police to review his photos. No threat to national security was detected -- the pictures were innocuous shots of the refinery and signage nearby. Rosenfield was eventually allowed to leave after being warned to clear further photography with the local authorities. At the request of police, he turned over his social security number and date of birth which were promptly given to the BP security officer who was present.

The men with guns had made their determination. It doesn't appear that they had much of a legal or logical basis to do so.

Why would potential terrorists take photos from a public street when they can view detailed reasonably high-resolution satellite photos via Google? What could possibly be gained from a ground-level shot, even with a telephoto lens?

Michael Marr, a BP spokesman in Texas City, said that the company acted because "an unidentified man" had been seen taking photos near refinery facilities, including "marine loading operations." Marr said Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard regulations require the company to report anyone "appearing to be engaged in surveillance of any kind (picture taking, note taking, shooting video, asking strange questions, etc)."

David Schulz, a media lawyer who teaches at the Columbia Law School, told me that the rules are not so broad as to allow inspection of a journalist's unpublished photos. "It is not against the law to take photos from a public street," he said.

"While federal regulations do require critical facilities to report suspicious activities, they do not sanction police demands to inspect photos taken by a working journalist," Schulz said. "A demand to see the photos smacks of censorship -- monitoring the news before it's published, with police acting as censors of what they like and don't like. Police simply don't have the power to do that, and we should all be concerned when provisions intended to safeguard our security are twisted to intimidate journalists."

In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, local authorities in Louisiana and elsewhere have made it more difficult for reporters and television crews to follow the story, restricting access to public beaches and waterways. More recently, the Coast Guard has set limits on how close news crews can come to booms and oily beaches.

There is, of course, good reason to keep the press away from potentially dangerous pollution sites. And there's at least an equally valid public policy rationale for keeping an eye on people who are photographing critical infrastructure like a refinery.

But the public and the press have good reason to be suspicious when a major corporation and the government try to curtail photography or reporters' firsthand access. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has raised questions about why reporters' movements have been restricted by local sheriffs.

And it's even harder to understand what circumstances justify allowing the police to review a journalist's work before publication.

News organizations fight hard to preserve the privacy of unpublished notes and photographs. The reasons are understandable. People often talk to reporters in confidence. We are not an arm of law enforcement and wouldn't want potential sources to feel that every dealing they have with us is open to scrutiny. News organizations routinely fight to quash subpoenas for unpublished material.

In the Texas City case, there was no confusion about Rosenfield's status as a journalist. He was carrying a letter from ProPublica confirming his assignment. The police officers who detained him made no effort to call editors here before questioning his credentials and detaining him. Marr's statement suggests that he was taking pictures near a marine loading facility. That may be true, but then a good swath of the Texas City is "near" one part of the port or another. And none of the photographs depict such facilities themselves.

This wasn't the first time journalists and the Texas City police have been in conflict. Capt. Ross Clements told me the police have a "standard practice" of reviewing photos snapped by tourists and news photographers because shots of "critical infrastructure" could be of use to terrorists.

A photographer for a local newspaper, The Galveston County Daily News, was detained in 2008 after shooting pictures of refinery workers trying to contain a leak at Marathon Oil Co.

Cpl. Robison, the local police's contact with the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the same officer who tried to get Rosenfield to disclose the contents of ProPublica's story, defended the policy, telling the Daily News:

"There's no law that says you can't take pictures from a public roadway, but the issue becomes: Are any of the shots compromising security measures?"

Michael Smith, associate editor of the Daily News, said the paper has pressed repeatedly for police to identify a federal law that permits them to review photos.

"As far as I can tell, there is no law that grants the police this power," he said.

"Nobody can point to a law of the United States of America or the State of Texas that allows police to do this," Smith continued. "This is an assumed power that the police have taken on themselves based on this amorphous notion that the demands of the security state allow this and if you're a good citizen, you shouldn't make a fuss."

To be fair, the streets of Texas City are nothing like the back roads of war-torn former Yugoslavia. But it's worth recording this historical note: The day I was stopped from entering Zvornik, a group of paramilitary soldiers had begun an "ethnic cleansing" that would leave hundreds of Muslim civilians dead. It was among the more brutal massacres of the war. One reason we know what happened is that one of the paramilitary groups invited an American photographer to accompany it.

If you don't think access matters, take a look at his photos.

There is an interestng meme going around. It goes this way: “They told me that if I voted for John McCain (insert lefty smear here). Well, I voted for McCain anyway and sure enough, (insert lefty smear here).

The Insert here for this case is photographers lose their First Amendment right to take photographs in public places.

By the way, I did vote for McCain. A vote I feel better about as time goes by.

Max, the thing you’re forgetting is this has been going on for a long, long time. Police quite often feel the need to harass journalists who are doing their jobs. They feel the need to harass private citizens who are legally recording and photographing things that are publicly viewable. The police can record your traffic stop, but in many cases, police have not afforded the same courtesy to the public or journalists.

The point is this has nothing to do with left or right politics, this has everything to do with overzealous cops ignoring the rights of the press and the public because of an authority trip. Police have been put into a situation where they can do pretty much whatever they want and it is up to the victim to battle it in court, hoping to god they have the financial backing to do so while dealing with a court system that trusts police.

This has nothing to do with who is President. There would be no difference here of John McCain was president, or if Ralph Nader were president. This is less about partisan politics and more about the thin blue line feeling they are all authoritative.


I think you have entirely missed the point. The idea here is not that photographers are losing their right to take pictures in public places; instead, the point is that journalists provide a check on the power of government by exposing the government’s actions to the citizens. When the government intimidates journalists or attempts to prevent them from doing their job, our entire democracy suffers.

Since you trotted out the term “lefty smear” I can only guess that you consider yourself a conservative. All of the conservatives I know dread the expansion of government power. I don’t understand? Don’t you love the Constitution? Don’t you want to keep the government from meddling in your life? Don’t you understand that by eviscerating the First Amendment, the government is making it easier to take away YOUR rights?  Or do you hate “lefties” so much that you would surrender your rights if it means THEIR rights are also taken away?

And I am glad for you that you voted for McCain, and you feel safe enough to say it in public. If the government ultimately subverts and muzzles the press with tactics like the ones used against this photographer, you may have to think twice about broadcasting your vote on the internet.  Ask some of the dissidents in China about what happens when they open their mouths.

I find it ironic that the police are so worried about a terrorist threat to “critical infrastructure” when the security guards to whom they turned the information over to work for a company that has done more damage to our country through sheer negligence than our middle-eastern bogey men could ever do .

I think the question of his status as a journalist should not really matter.  Not just journalists, but also ordinary private citizens also have the right to take pictures in public places, without police harassment—or at least should have the right.  In this era of blogging, who is to what who is and isn’t is a “journalist”, anyway?

If tourists and journalists have been harassed for years as a matter of official policy, then this is a situation that clearly begs for a lawsuit, and I can only hope that legal action is being taken to try to stop this practice by the police.  It seems to me that a lawsuit should have been filed as soon as this practice started.

Kevin Schmidt

July 8, 2010, 11:15 a.m.

We have met the terrorists who, “hate our freedoms”, and they are ourselves!

Of course you have to remember that imperialism, genocide, ecocide, torture and terrorism are all proud American traditions since 1492!

The consequence from the BP guards side just shows how delicate the situation is but it just shows how the oil corporations easily take the power and the controll on the public opinion. just beside the pharse about the rights and democracy form our eastern point of wiew who have experience with so called “dictatorship”. It would not surprise me that an onther repost will show the dissapearence of the photographer. Simple and clear ; if the photo material published online will cause financial damage a human life on the opposite values less than zero. Surprise and doubt as to the event are surprisingly childish. not to forget how many reposters lost their lives in suspicious circumstances areound the world. I assume in the USA isn any different.

Predlagajte boljši prevod

Gary Baumgarten

July 8, 2010, 3 p.m.

What is this country coming to? When a journalist - or anyone for that matter - is harassed by the police for taking pictures in the public view?

These idiots obviously have not considered the First Amendment.

Funny, in the name of protecting our liberties, our liberties are denied. Our Founding Fathers must be weeping.

Right on Eric.  More damage done to Louisiana by big business than any terrorist ever thought of doing.

The exact same thing happened to me at the ConocoPhillips refinery in Linden NJ - the refinery story ran on ABV TV eyewitness news, but not the police detention.

I posted the photo’ and a story on my blog,see:

am NJ Director of NJ PEER and have worked with Joaquin Sapien of Propublica.

I have been detained for similar episodes at NJ chemical plants. Homelands Security has investaged me and visited me at my home.


Carlos Rosso editor of CONTRAPUNTOS

July 8, 2010, 9:55 p.m.

Puerto Rico has lately its owm Serbian border:  The Senate!  The system has been constructed with extreme bodyguards, security at all levels, beyond previous experience in recent decades!

One true friend of justice and friend of Puerto Rico, Jaime Martínez, frontrunner for LULAC National President, wrote thisw to us at our city desk:

“Sent: Sun, Jul 4, 2010 6:25 pm

I am writing this message of solidarity and speaking in defense and Justice for the people and students of Puerto Rico who were beaten at the steps of the Puerto Rican capitol. Where is the LULAC Puerto Rican leadership ? And what are they going to do to defend the “Rights, Free speech and the Democratic principle of Democracy for our brothers and sisters. A friendly reminder to all to all. Today we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the adoption and publication by the Continental Congress of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, words that I cherish from the bottom of my heart. ” We hold this truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their ” Just Powers” from the consent of the governed…” The vision of a new human society characterized by self-governing representatives democracy and universal human rights set down in the American Declaration of Independence and delivered to the world 234 years ago still remains always one of the greatest gifts , ( with human sacrifice) people has ever given to the rest of humanity. The image of human rights, equality, and democracy give us a shinning goal toward which to train our sights, and each generation must stand up to preserve these rights. The Declaration of Independence is a living document, not to be taken as mere antique words , by a document that must be upheld in demonstrations of civil rights, like Dr. Martin Luther King and Cesar E. Chavez, who frequently invoked the Declaration of Independence when they were met with brute force, they challenged the arrogance of this brute power with the greater power of non-violence,  rights , Justice and democracy- thereby proclaiming its truth in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons that the patriots of 1776 presented the Declaration to the world. Make a stand for the students and people who were met with Billy clubs, in Puerto Rico.

In Unity for Civil Rights, Justice in Puerto Rico”

the thing that gets me is the stupid cop LIVES there and HIS family is the family that will suffer from this. Being a cancer surviver, I know you do not mess with these chemicals. It is always the stupid that will act to protect the evil. These stupid men do not get, that these corporations do not care about their health, they care about making money and only money. The reporters do care about their health.  What a couple of dummys, and those are the guys we give guns to.

I intend to sue Ulster County, NY, (Woodstock?) legislature and the sheriff’s department for $1,776,000-. for false arrest, defamation of character, depriving me of my constitutional rights and whatever else I can identify they’ve done and are doing.

Where are the old-time “Front Page” reporters who fought to GET THE STORY, albeit often minimal, in the knowledge that a GREAT DEAL may lie beneath the surface?

Do you feel the same toward CITIZEN journalists?

January 6, Ulster County, NY under sheriff (say who?) ARRESTED me because I refused to leave my TWELVE-YEAR catbird, windowsill, seat in county legislature chambers. AT THE TIME of arrest I HADN’T SAT there; all I’d done was NOT MOVE AWAY FROM the windowsill.

I suppose I was too great a thorn in the side of our legislature. I’ve brought to light too many embarrassments which the “official press” failed to discover and/or reveal.

There was/is NO law nor ordinance restricting it. When, a few weeks earlier I had told them, publicly, that I’d not obey, they printed and posted signs announcing such.

At trial, the Kingston city judge convicted me of Disorderly Conduct, which, I understand, is a typical police maneuver when they can’t GET THE GOODS on someone. I’m appealing; but so far can’t find a lawyer to take my case - too many “conflicts of interest,” lawyers having EVER worked for the county! Kingston City mayor James Sottile has a similar problem. Can’t find a lawyer!

How’s that for the republic?

Allan Wikman
Kingston, NY
845 + 802-0403
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

civil discourse

July 9, 2010, 6:32 a.m.

hope you gave them the wrong SS#.

Alejandro Zichy

July 9, 2010, 4:58 p.m.

Incredible that all that the rest of the World admired in the US system is now being eroded due to something called Homeland Security. At least Homeland Security is used as an excuse to take away the liberties of the individual.
In 1969 Nixon was made aware of the dangers of carbon dioxide and its links to Global Warming. I have to ask why no other President after him did anything about it? Is the Petrol Industry so strong that it will be responsible for the extinction of mankind? Doesn’t anybody care? Is short term profit everything?
Sincerely I hope not, although evidence of the contrary is adding up fast.

I am so pleased to see people of differing views debating or discussing with civility.
I too am very concerned about our first amendment rights. 
These things suggest “thought policing” to me.  It is so ironic to me that repression of thought and free speech is done through intimidation, detainment and even violence. 
We have the right to think whatever we want, and say nearly anything, with only obvious exceptions, As long as you DO no wrong to others.
There seems a critical lack of self examination among even lower authorities.
It’s terrible to see words catch this reaction while there seems to be so much worse going on to the environment and people’s lives.

BP is so interested in what a photograph may reveal about them, they have forbidden the use of protective masks for workers within their chemical dispersant zones risking the health of their employees rather than take a chance that some critical item of corporate intelligence might escape into the public.They behave like a landless police state and themselves, because of it, are a threat to public safety in general and a proven danger to the inhabitants of the Gulf Coast.

Cops have been bullying minorities, students and
fringe people for a long time, without porompting
a whole lot of outrage.  Yet let them brace one
WASP to look at his pictures and you people go
postal.  Spare me.

Here in Maryland, the State Police have repeatedly lost lawsuits due to their habit of harassment of black motorists.  The legislature, knowing they cannot control their own police have dealt with the problem by making it a crime to photograph policemen!  Thus our local governments hope to limit their tort liabilities for the misconduct of the small minority of racist cops.  I have personal knowledge of at least two such cases.


I am afraid you know nothing about the “you people” you dismiss. I am not here to justify my response to police harassment of students, minorities and fringe people, but I will say this: I have represented such people in court, in an effort to (1) stop such harassment, and (2) obtain some redress for the infringement of those citizens’ rights. I did not go postal; I did something. My reading this article was not the first I heard about BP using the police to clamp down on the media, and in fact rather than going postal, I took action. I will not stoop to your level by demanding that you justify your post by listing your actions. Instead, I will point out that the article to which we are responding has to do with the harassment of a photojournalist—not a student, minority or fringe person. Perhaps you may wish to troll elsewhere.


I find your response here somewhat disturbing in its vagueness about citizen journalists. 

“In the Texas City case, there was no confusion about Rosenfield’s status as a journalist. He was carrying a letter from ProPublica confirming his assignment. The police officers who detained him made no effort to call editors here before questioning his credentials and detaining him. Marr’s statement suggests that he was taking pictures near a marine loading facility.” 

What do you actually think about the legal status of a national security based prohibition against a private citizen taking pictures from a public roadway?  Is there or is there not a first amendment concern that you have with that?

Are you arguing that only a credentialed reporter has rights in this case?

Are you saying that a credentialed reporter SHOULD have extra rights, but a private citizen would be (more) justifiably detained and searched?

It sounds as if, in the end, your outrage is related in significant part to the fact that “official” press rights were violated.  But what about citizen journalism?  What about the bloggers and free lancers who may break the next big story?  Are they in your scope of concern, or do you consider them subject to a lesser degree of protection in the face of national security concerns?

I’ve been very grateful to Pro Publica’s reporting lately.  I appreciate your comments here, and look forward to greater clarity on what you think about these issues.

We the citizens of Earth need to unite in LOVE. When this happens..we will all agree that we all have a part in all of this…no one person, corporation, government, or institution is to blame. I am the one

Sorry to break this to you, but Texas City sits inside the 100 mile Constitution Free Zone. With-in this zone, which the Supreme Court has deemed Constitutional, all 4th Amendment rights related to “Search & Seizure” are suspended.

If that is not enough to scare the bejeebers out of you, then also consider that this CFZ extends around the entire country. Still not scared? There is absolutely no restrictions on how far it can be extended inward, 200, 300, even 400 miles?

Still not concerned? Two Thirds of the American people reside inside that 100 mile zone. Ironically all of this Nations most sacred documents are inside the current Constitution Free Zone, which also includes the Constitution itself. Welcome to the Police State, the net is in place and is already being pulled in, from the original 50 mile zone to the current 100 mile zone.

I’m surprised that a Columbia Law Professor would not know this. Perhaps you can inform him, a map is currently post on the ACLU website

Sean Lawlor Nelson

July 26, 2010, 8 p.m.

Stephen Engelberg, I guess I appreciate your documenting the police harassment and censorship.  But the censorship and consciousness-control in our society doesn’t depend on police to harass random reporters.
      Almost all of the major news corporations in this country deliberately and methodically censor and spin the information that reaches the public.  Stories recently published by demonstrate this very clearly; Do you think CNN is going to take up the case of the Glover murder with any factuality(or at all?)

This article is part of a series:

A Closer Look

A column by ProPublica's editors.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories