Not only does Ian Van Kuyk assert that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested, but he said he’s facing a number of charges for exercising those rights. Before March 14, Van Kuyk had no brushes with the law, no serious blemishes on his record. So, he said, he didn’t expect his first would come while taking photos for a class assignment.
Roughly two weeks ago, police officers pulled a vehicle to the side of the road near Van Kuyk’s residence in South Philadelphia. Enrolled in a photojournalism course, the junior film and media arts major used the occurrence as an opportunity to take photos for a night-photography assignment.
As Van Kuyk tells it, he grabbed his camera and began taking photos of the occurrence. After being told to move away from the scene, Van Kuyk distanced himself but continued to take photos, he said. However, an officer soon after demanded Van Kuyk to stop taking photos, he said.
“He was pushing me, and I kept taking pictures and he didn’t like it, and he…got real aggressive and threw me to the ground,” Van Kuyk said.
When his girlfriend, Meghan Feighan, tried to pick up the camera, she was arrested and held for nearly 18 hours, he said. Van Kuyk was arrested and held for nearly 24 hours.
But Van Kuyk’s relaying of the story several days later ignited a network response. Dr. Andrew Mendelson, chairman of the journalism department, learned of the incident and contacted Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel at the National Press Photographers Association.
Osterreicher formally addressed Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey in a March 22 letter, which he also sent to Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams. In the letter, Osterreicher condemns the officers for their actions and criticizes the charges brought upon Van Kuyk.
“Not only wasn’t he committing any crimes, he was exercising a constitutionally protected form of free speech and free expression,” Osterreicher told The Temple News. “The elements of most criminal charges contain a number of things, but they all have to have contained intent…his only intent at that point was to take pictures. I think they would have a very difficult time proving beyond a reasonable doubt proving those charges.”
“It would be one thing to just have somebody say, ‘You can’t take pictures.’ That would be bad enough,” Osterreicher added. “His rights were not only stripped, they were trampled.”
In September 2011, Ramsey issued a memorandum, reiterating police officers’ expectation to be “photographed, videotaped or audibly recorded” by members of the public and by individuals temporarily detained.
“I hope [the commissioner] reasserts the importance of the document that he put out about the rights of citizens and journalists to record and photograph the police,” Mendelson said.
Osterreicher said, “When you’re in public, whether you’re a police officer or a citizen, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Six days after the incident, Feighan agreed at a preliminary trial to work 12 hours of community service and pay a $200 fine for her charges, through the city’s Accelerated Misdemeanor Program.
Van Kuyk said the charges he received include: obstructing justice, resisting arrest, hindering apprehension, disorderly conduct and disorderly conduct – fight II. The hindering apprehension charge is a felony offense. However, a court docket posted March 25 only lists three of the misdemeanor charges.
Osterreicher said in an email that he was attempting to learn the reason for disparity.
Van Kuyk’s preliminary trial is scheduled for April 16.
The NPPA hopes the charges against Van Kuyk will be dropped upon review by the district attorney, Osterreicher said.
If in the event the charges are not dropped, Van Kuyk said, he has been in contact with resources that could guide him through the court process, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Unfortunately when these things go to court, there’s a rebuttable presumption that the police officer is telling the truth about what happened. If it’s your word versus the officer’s, without witnesses, without any other supporting evidence, that’s difficult,” Osterreicher said.
The PPD Office of Media Relations did not return requests for comment by time of press. A representative for the office did reportedly tell the Associated Press that Van Kuyk and Feighan were arrested for “other things.”
Both Mendelson and Osterreicher said knowing and protecting First Amendment rights are not only important to journalists, but to all citizens.
“When our constitutional rights are abridged, it has a chilling effect on the people and our ability to exercise those rights,” Osterreicher said. “Unfortunately, [Van Kuyk] and other students…have found out firsthand how chilling that effect is.”
Van Kuyk concurs.
“My rights were violated, my girlfriend’s rights were violated, and this happens all the time to people. And no one really cares about it, but if it happens to you, you would care about it,” Van Kuyk said. “You really need to know your rights and stand up for them.”
“I went from never thinking I would be in trouble [with the law], to spending 24 hours in jail for taking a picture,” Van Kuyk added.
Angelo Fichera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.