Jury: La. cops didn't violate journalists' rights
Court sides with New Orleans police in videotaping case
NEW ORLEANS — A federal jury on Wednesday rejected allegations that New Orleans police unlawfully arrested two men who were videotaping them along a Carnival parade route in 2007.
Greg Griffith and Noah Learned sued in 2007, arguing the city's police department has a habit of arresting or threatening people who videotape or photograph officers. Several journalists also testified about their encounters with police.
The seven jurors deliberated less than three hours before unanimously concluding that officers Brian Harrison and D'Meecko Hughes had probable cause to arrest Griffith and Learned and did not use excessive force.
The jury did not get to weigh in on the allegation that the department "has a custom or policy of violating a person's First Amendment right to photograph or film police activity."
But city attorney Franz Zibilich said the plaintiffs never proved that claim.
The jury "didn't buy it, and we commend them for that," he said.
Zibilich said Griffith and Learned interfered with officers breaking up a fight. They were charged with crossing a police cordon, but the charges were dismissed about two months later.
Hughes and Harrison, who has left the department, hugged each other and their attorneys after the verdict.
Griffith, now 34 and living in Cambridge, Mass., and Learned, now 29 and living in New Orleans, were seeking money and a court order that could have required the department to change its policies.
Learned was a student at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette when he was arrested. Griffith had come to the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to volunteer at a health clinic. They met at Kent State University in Ohio, where they co-founded a "Cop Watch" program to monitor police activity.
Their lawsuit cited 11 other incidents since 2005 in which police allegedly tried to stop people from taping, photographing or observing officers.
Learned said he was disappointed by the verdict but grateful to hear testimony from several witnesses, including the officers, that reinforced people's right to tape police activity.
"Hopefully it will empower people to continue to pursue that activity," he said.
During the trial, several journalists described run-ins they had with New Orleans police officers.
Associated Press Television News videojournalist Rich Matthews described filming an arrest with his crew in the city's French Quarter several weeks after Katrina when an officer shoved him against a car and ordered him to stop taping. A video of the incident showed that when Matthews held up his credentials, the officer grabbed him, leaned him backward over a car, jabbed him in the stomach and unleashed a profanity-laced tirade.
Times-Picayune city editor Gordon Russell said he and a New York Times photographer were driving through the city after Katrina when they encountered a group of officers in the aftermath of an apparent shoot-out. Russell said the officers ordered them out of their car at gunpoint and briefly confiscated his notebook and the photographer's camera.
William Gamble, a student lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the journalists' testimony showed the department's officers routinely violate citizens' First Amendment rights.
"Without your intervention, officers will continue to act on this custom," Gamble, of the Tulane Law Clinic, told jurors during closing arguments.
But Zibilich scoffed at the claim that police target people with cameras, saying a "handful of isolated incidents" doesn't amount to a pattern of behavior.
"There's nothing here to suggest transparency doesn't exist or there was a cover-up," he said.