Government Pays $18k To Journalists Whose Tank Plant Photos It Deleted

A handful of deleted photos taken of a public structure is going to cost taxpayers $18,000. (via Poynter)

In what was seen as a victory for First Amendment rights, the U.S. government agreed Thursday to pay The Blade $18,000 for seizing the cameras of a photographer and deleting photographs taken outside the Lima tank plant last year.

In turn, The Blade agreed to dismiss the lawsuit it filed April 4 in U.S. District Court on behalf of photographer Jetta Fraser and reporter Tyrel Linkhorn against Charles T. Hagel, then the U.S. Secretary of Defense; Lt. Col. Matthew Hodge, commandant of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, and the military police officers involved in the March 28, 2014, incident.

The two journalists were apprehended by security staff at the Lima, OH, manufacturing center while taking pictures of the outside of the building. Despite there being plenty of photos of the tank parked proudly in front of the facility, as well as others detailing the interior of the plant, the security guards decided the journalists’ activity was Terrorism Lite™ and deleted the photos from the camera. They also made derogatory comments about journalist Jetta Fraser’s perceived lack of femininity and threatened to “go under her bra” to… well, I don’t know what exactly, but given the context of the comments, apparently to “prove” for themselves that she was indeed female.

Like most settlements, there’s no admission of wrongdoing to be found in the government’s offer. Somewhat bizarrely — considering the photos were apparently deleted — the settlement demands pictures taken that day never be published.

Plaintiffs agree not to publish, distribute, reproduce, sell or share any of the photographs taken of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio on March 28, 2014.

The Toledo Blade and its journalists offer no explanation for agreeing to these particular terms. The only logical explanation is that the photos could not be recovered, making this largely a moot point. Even so, this concession allows the censorious plant staff to salvage a partial victory from defeat and does nothing at all to prevent future abusive actions.

In fact, in its non-apologetic letter to the plaintiffs, the US Army pretty much vows to make the same “mistake” repeatedly in the future.

The letter, dated Feb. 25 and signed by Col. Ronald J. Shun, chief of staff for the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command… states that the Army “takes seriously its obligation to protect its military installations” and “acknowledges the important role that the press serves in a free society.”

“The Army is interested in a positive relationship with The Blade, its employees, and all members of the media,” Colonel Shun wrote.

But not that interested. The letter goes on to say that the US Army — and representatives from its tank plant — will only entertain press requests for statements and photos, so dropping by to snap pictures while in the area (as The Blade’s journalists did) is still unwelcome and will likely result in extra attention from the plant’s security. So, the First Amendment isn’t really being protected here. It’s just being humored.

The public embarrassment — rather than the settlement — will likely have more of a deterrent effect on plant personnel. Armed with the knowledge that snapping photos of the outside of the Lima plant is protected speech may lead to other photographers informally “polling” the plant’s security staff in the future. But in the end, it’s always the same. The government — whose grasp of laws and rights should be better than its constituents — will put on its “terrorist” blinders to violate more rights and allow taxpayers to pick up the tab.

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