The Toledo Blade filed a federal lawsuit Friday against various government officials after military police reportedly detained two of the paper’s journalists outside a military manufacturing facility, seized their equipment, and deleted digital photographs.
We’ll get into some discussion of The Blade’s claims below. First, here’s what we know about the events, from the paper’s point of view.
Reporter Tyrel Linkhorn and photographer Jetta Fraser traveled on March 28 to the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, OH, a little over an hour southwest of Toledo, to shoot file photos of the center, which manufactures and refurbishes combat vehicles and defense systems. According to the paper, Fraser took photos from the center’s entry, standing in a small roadway between the public street and a guard hut and shooting areas of the facility visible from the street. When she was done and tried to leave with Linkhorn, three military police officers detained and questioned them—and confiscated their cameras, according to a report in The Blade the following day.
The lawsuit names as defendants the secretary of defense, the center’s commandant, three military police officers, and an unknown agent or employee of the Department of Defense. (General Dynamics, the contractor that operates the facility, is not named as a defendant.) The complaint alleges, among other things, the officers unlawfully detained the journalists, unlawfully restrained Fraser and threatened her with bodily harm, unlawfully confiscated and destroyed personal property, and interfered with the journalists’ lawful exercise of their First Amendment rights. The suit’s 10 claims arise from the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, as well as the Privacy Protection Act.
“We’ve always tried to do what’s right,” Kurt Franck, the Blade’s executive editor, told CJR. “Our role is that of the fourth estate, and if that means we have to go to court and spend money to do what’s right by our readers and the public, then that’s what we’ll do. Everything that happened that day made it apparent we couldn’t sit back and take it. It wouldn’t be good for The Blade, for our readers, for the public, for the First Amendment.”
According to the complaint, neither Linkhorn nor Fraser passed the guard hut, which is set back 30 feet from the main road and was unoccupied at the time, and no signs or traffic-control devices were in place to limit access to the roadway between the street and guard hut. In addition to being visible from the street, the plant can be seen through Google Street View. A Street View image uploaded by The Blade shows where the incident took place.
The Blade’s top editors, including Franck and John Robinson Block, the publisher and editor-in-chief, were surprised and ultimately outraged to learn that military police had detained the two journalists—outraged chiefly because of the alleged treatment of Fraser.
The complaint states that when the officers approached the journalists and asked why they were taking photos, Linkhorn and Fraser produced their Blade identification cards and said they were on assignment. Then the officers told Fraser, who was not driving, they needed to see her driver’s license. She questioned whether that was necessary, and the officers ordered Fraser to exit the vehicle, handcuffed her, and conducted a pat-down search. She remained in handcuffs for one hour. Throughout the encounter, as the officers handcuffed and questioned Fraser, they addressed her “in terms denoting the masculine gender,” according to the complaint. Fraser asked the officers not to do so, reportedly prompting one to comment, after handcuffing her, “You say you are a female, I’m going to go under your bra.”
“That’s what bothered us first and foremost, what they did to her,” said Franck. “I was appalled when I heard it, and I’m still appalled.”
Phone calls Friday and Monday to the public affairs office for the Army’s TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, which oversees the Lima facility, were not immediately returned. Two days earlier, however, before the lawsuit was filed, the Army provided a statement to The Huffington Post alleging the journalists had “taken unauthorized photographs of the installation” from “within the boundaries” of the plant and noting:
JSMC Lima is a restricted Department of Defense Government-owned, Contractor-operated facility that fabricates and assembles armored combat vehicles and equipment for U.S. and Foreign Military customers. According to Federal law and Army Regulations, it is unlawful to take any photograph without first obtaining permission of the commanding officer. Signage to this effect is visible and warns that any such material found in the possession of unauthorized personnel will be confiscated.
[Update: An Army public relations officer returned CJR’s call Monday afternoon, left the same statement provided to Huffington Post on a voicemail message, and said that was the available information.]