The Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio has filed a lawsuit against the United States government after two journalists employed by the outlet were detained by the military for photographing a tank plant owned by defense contractor General Dynamics.
Attorneys for the paper filed their lawsuit on Friday, April 4, one week after Blade reporter Tyrel Linkhorn and photographer Jetta Fraser were detained for around an hour-and-a-half after they were approached while taking pictures of the plant from public property outside the premises.
The journalists were reportedly taking photographs of scenes visible from the street when they were accosted by military security. According to Ms. Fraser, an officer told her that taking pictures of the facility’s power supply, even from outside the property, raised the “suspicion of terrorism.”
Linkhorn and Fraser were held for around 90 minutes, according to the lawsuit, before being released without charge. It took several hours for their camera to be returned, however, and when it was — only upon intervention from a United States senator — they discovered that their images from outside of the plant were deleted. Additionally, attorneys for the Blade say Ms. Fraser was restrained with handcuffs throughout the ordeal and threatened by military personnel and, on her part, she said she was treated in a “disrespectful and discourteous way” by security.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the Blade reported, called General Dynamics on the afternoon of the incident and convinced officials to return the journalists’ camera after they reviewed the images.
According to the suit, the entire incident violated the journalists’ First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights as protected by the United States Constitution. The paper is now suing three members of the military police, as well as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and two others, because they say the Blade staffers were unlawfully detained, that Ms. Fraser was unlawfully restrained and received unlawful threats of bodily harm, that their cameras were unlawfully confiscated and pictures unlawfully destroyed and that the journalists’ constitutional rights were unlawfully prevented from being exercised.
“It is hard for me to believe that anyone in a public position is not aware that the Constitution admits anyone, including the media, to take photographs of buildings, scenes or situations that are readily observable from public spots,” Fritz Byers, a lawyer for The Blade, told the New York Times.
In an editorial published on Sunday this week, the Blade said that "Pentagon officials, from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Army commandant at the plant to the rawest recruit, need to understand and acknowledge that such conduct was intolerable and can’t be allowed to recur, anywhere."
"This is not special pleading on behalf of The Blade or news media in general; no American citizens deserve to be mistreated as our colleagues Jetta Fraser and Tyrel Linkhorn were,” the op-ed continued.
“I’m personally shocked by this incident,” added Blade editor-in-chief John Robinson Block. “I believe our people were totally in the right.”
Dave Murray, managing editor of the Blade, said, “The Army does not have the right in this country to detain journalists, handcuff them, seize their cameras and destroy our work product on the whim of an overzealous military police officer.”
According to the account profiled by Times reporter Ravi Somaiya on Sunday this week, Linkhorn and Fraser were apprehended while on an entry road to Lima, OH General Dynamics plant, where no signs suggested the area was subject to restricted access. A guard’s station was around 30 feet further up the road, according to the complaint seen by the Times.
“The photos Ms. Fraser took were taken outside the secure perimeter of the tank plant and were photos that anyone with a cell phone could take as they drive by,” managing editor Murray said.
Both Blade journalists say they believe they acted on the right side of the law throughout the ordeal.
“I really don’t understand what I was not allowed to photograph,” Fraser told reporters at her paper. "If I can see it from the road, it’s available to the public eye.”
“I don’t want this to be about me or The Blade necessarily,” opined Linkhorn. “I just want to make sure that laws are followed properly and that people have the freedom that they should have.”
“My biggest concern is that we were doing something that I believe we were within our rights to be doing,” Linkhorn added, “not because we were journalists, but because we are US citizens and we were simply taking photos from public property.”
In the op-ed published by the Blade, the paper said that the military personnel went over the line when they detained the journalists, who earlier during the altercation provided press credentials to security.
"The initial effort by the police officers to determine what the journalists were doing may have been proper,” the op-ed read in part. “But everything they did afterwards was not. They, and their employers, must be held accountable for their illegal actions.”