An affront to free speech

Published 7:35 pm Saturday, August 29, 2015


When Franz Strasser, a video journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation, heard about the shooting deaths of two Roanoke-area journalists last week, he and a BBC reporter hopped in their car, headed out of Washington, D.C., and took off for Roanoke, where they planned to cover the story for the BBC.

Along the way, headed west on I-66, they happened upon the scene where the man who apparently had shot the two Roanoke journalists had driven into the median and shot himself, according to an account by Patrick Wilson in The Virginian-Pilot on Saturday. About a dozen police cars were parked in and along the oncoming lanes, and police, the BBC reporters later realized, were waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

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As any good journalist would do — and as was his right under the First Amendment — Strasser stopped his vehicle, got out, grabbed his camera and began filming from about 200 yards away, according to the account he gave the Pilot. But officers quickly noticed him and shouted for him to return to his vehicle.

Not content with just rousting him from the scene of a breaking news event on public property, one officer followed Strasser back to his car, threatened to have it towed and then said he’d have to seize the camera for the evidence it might contain. Falling back from that position, the officer then demanded, according to Strasser, that the journalist delete his footage.

This newspaper has taken a dim view of public officials’ attempts to control the news. The need for a free flow of information to the public is a bedrock principle in American society, evidenced by the fact that the Founding Fathers enshrined free speech and a press free of government intrusion in the Bill of Rights’ very first amendment.

When police officers attempt to stifle the rights of journalists who are doing their jobs without interfering with the officers’ work or creating safety hazards for themselves or others, a bright line is crossed, and the rights of all people are infringed.

If a journalist is forced to delete his legally obtained files, how much easier would it be for an officer to force a citizen to delete video shot during a violent confrontation between police and a suspect, as in the case of Walter Scott, the unarmed South Carolina man whose fatal shooting in the back by a police officer in April was captured on a citizen’s cellphone camera?

The Virginian-Pilot interviewed Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, who said the state police officer had violated Strasser’s First Amendment right to free speech, his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure and his 14th Amendment right to not be deprived of his property without due process.

Following a complaint from the BBC, officials from the Virginia State Police have said the incident is under investigation and would represent a violation of their policies if it happened as Strasser described.

We hope that investigation results in a firm restatement of VSP’s commitment to upholding the constitutional rights of journalists and other citizens, a serious course of training in how to do so and an apology to Strasser and his employer. Furthermore, local law enforcement agencies throughout the commonwealth should take note of the situation and put safeguards in place to ensure that no such affront to freedom of the press takes place in their own jurisdictions.