Olvera Street is a tiny, historic street in downtown Los Angeles.
On my first work day of journalism school, I was sent to Olvera Street, a tiny pedestrian street lined with vendors which celebrates the Spanish and Mexican history in downtown Los Angeles. My job was to find some visitors who felt passionate about the site and could share their experience with me. When I arrived at the public street, which is owned by the City of Los Angeles (and therefore owned by the taxpayers), I set up my tripod and camera in the plaza in front of the street. In less 20 minutes, I was approached by a security guard asking if I had a permit.
I had two choices: get a permit or go home. I went home, discouraged.
National Press Photographers Association’s General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher explained, “If you’re out in public, in a public place where the public is, then you have a First Amendment right to photograph and record anything that you can see in that place.”
The groundbreaking case that addressed the First Amendment right to record in public is called Glik v. Cunniffe. In 2007, Simon Glik observed Boston police officers arresting someone on the street and decided to record it because of the police officers’ forcefulness. Glik pulled out his cellphone to record the incident and was later arrested for violating the wiretapping law because of the recorded audio. The court ruled that Glik was wrongly arrested and that the city of Boston had to pay him $170,000 for damages and legal fees.
The United States First Court of Appeals also ruled that anyone can record in public. The decision states :
“The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”
Even though this case led the way in granting First Amendment rights, citizens’ inherent rights are still violated all the time.
Both student journalists and full-time journalists often face these problems while working in Los Angeles. Being a famous city, it is not difficult to find people filming all over the city for a variety of purposes.
“We’re in L.A., Hollywood, and we get tons of people here because of our beautiful site, our authentic, beautiful buildings,” said El Pueblo General Manager Christopher Espinosa. “Everyone wants to shoot their videos here, whether they’re commercial or just their own YouTube videos.”
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution gives journalists a clear and generous privilege. It reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the
right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress
Now, the question is: what is freedom of the press? According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment:
“Shield[s] the press from government interference serv[ing] two key goals in a
representative democracy like ours. It gives the media a free hand to investigate and
report on government waste, abuse, fraud, and, especially, illegal activity. And it
prevents the government from capturing the media and using it to further its own ends.”
But in reality, journalists come across obstacles in the field. Security guards and police officers are expected to be automatically suspicious of anyone with a camera.
“I do think it’s reasonable to impose some burden on journalists to find out what is necessary or what is required at a particular venue,” said Judge Stephen Larson, a partner at the Los Angeles office of Aren’t Fox and a former federal judge. “Part of it is simply a matter of crowd control and security and other reasonably objective interests that government has short of affecting the content.”
Back to that hot day in September. I closed up my tripod, carried all of my equipment and tried to begin negotiating with the Olvera Street security guard. No luck. I explained that I was just trying to get my shots for a school assignment. He said he was just following orders to send me to get a permit.
“If you’re going to come cold off the street, and we don’t know who you are, our security guards will probably tell you, ‘You shouldn’t be filming here. You need a permit,’” said Espinosa. “That’s the way we’ve instructed.”
The security officer and I headed upstairs to El Pueblo’s main office and I continued to the second level where an Olvera Street official demanded my press credentials, which are not easy to get in this city. To qualify for an official Los Angeles Police Department press pass, journalists must provide a letter from their employer—a news agency— if they work for full-time. But if journalists are not working full-time, they need to provide three letters from three separate Los Angeles news outlets claiming that they have completed freelance assignments for them. As a student, I am neither a full-time staffer nor an accomplished freelancer. Does this mean I am not a journalist?
There are many tourist locations near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
We went back and forth with the Olvera Street employees, and I was ultimately sent away with a three-page student filming permit form to fill out and return with once approved. Because I was on a tight deadline, I had no time to deal with this kind of paperwork. Instead, I headed over to Chinatown to create a whole new story.
“It’s a personal thing as to whether photographers want to push it or just say, ‘I don’t have the time, I don’t have the energy to risk being arrested,’ and they just end up complying with these unconstitutional orders,” Osterreicher said.
This happened to me a few weeks later when I walked from my class at the University of Southern California to Hoover Recreation Center in South L.A., a public recreation center owned by the City of Los Angeles, where I was hoping to film a weather story about people remaining active despite the heat wave.
Again, in less than 10 minutes, a Hoover Recreation Center employee asked me, “Do you have a permit to film?” Knowing that I was on public property and should have no issues, I pushed back asking, “No, do I need one?”
She explained that the park could get sued if I had any shots of children in the background. She didn’t explain what laws she was talking about. This rule made me wonder where, if anywhere, I would be permitted to film.
“You know internally that you’re there for an objective, journalistic purpose but there are many people that might be showing up for anything but an objective, journalistic purpose,” said Larson. “How is the person permitting you to come in to know that? Well, they know that by your credentials.”
Understandably, some people are scared for their safety and persona. They are afraid of how they will be perceived and how the video will be used. And government agencies see dollar signs when they see professional filmmakers and often don’t understand the difference between a lengthy film shoot for a commercial or feature film or TV show and a daily journalist or documentary filmmaker simply trying to document real life in public places. These modern-day obstacles make filming for journalistic purposes extremely difficult to carry out.
In October 2011, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for harassing news photographers for taking pictures in public places. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, citing incidents where deputies stopped people, frisked them and even threatened to arrest some of them.
Three photographers who had been in public places, such as in a subway station or on the street in front of a courthouse, contacted the ACLU to sue these deputies.
The lawsuit seeks “damages on behalf of the three plaintiffs, and an injunction to prevent the unlawful search, detention and harassment of photographers by LAUSD in the future.”
“If you don’t have a press pass, that can create some kind of problem because with technology, the way that cameras are, commercial shoots can pretty much do everything with a small camera,” said Kevin Herrera, a spokesman for the Third Street Promenade from Downtown Santa Monica Inc. “So it’s even harder for us to identify and differentiate between someone who’s doing it for a journalistic purpose or someone who is doing it for commercial purpose.”
I guess, third time’s a charm? My third and most recent permit-blockade experience was at the University of Southern California’s main campus center. I was filming a package for USC’s television news with USC equipment as a USC student.
But none of that seemed to matter to a security official who suddenly appeared at my side as my classmate and I were filming a story about the placement of bathrooms on campus. She approached us somewhat aggressively and demanded, “Do you have a permit to film here?”
I must admit, at this point, I almost laughed. I couldn’t believe that I was being asked for a permit at my own school, practically my home.
Trying to keep our frustration in check, we politely explained to the woman that we were there for the school news outlet. She responded by telling us that next time, we need a permit so they know we are not going to “defame” the university. After saying this, she mumbled something into her walkie-talkie and scurried away.
In today’s society, not all journalists have press credentials. Not all journalists come with a cameraman. And not all journalists have a state-of-the-art van to travel in. As a student journalist with a rickety tripod and a tiny video camera, I am still reporting the news, and I should still maintain the right of freedom of the press.
Osterreicher reaffirmed this, saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it for school, or whether you’re doing it for yourself, or whether you’re doing it for The New York Times. The right is still the same.’’
I have asked the officials guarding public spaces in Los Angeles to clarify their expectations for permits for journalists. I have included their preferences in the video and audio pieces throughout this article.
Officials at both Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles, and Third Street Promenade, a public street lined with stores and restaurants in Santa Monica, said that they welcome reporters, but that they would like journalists to call ahead to let their offices know what they are doing at the specific location. If the reporters have credentials, they will be left alone on site. A permit is only necessary when filming for commercial purposes.
While journalists should follow the law and appropriately carry out their duties, they should not be stopped from doing what is their inherent right as reporters. This includes reporting the news in all public places without a permit or prior consent from anyone.