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In plain view from public places: Photojournalists and free speech

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freespeechweek_logo_mainWhat can and cannot be photographed continues to fall under question, bringing attention to photojournalists and igniting important First Amendment conversations. As part of other Free Speech Week lessons and activities, teachers may use this opportunity to incorporate key readings and discussion geared toward visual storytellers.

For starters, journalism students paying attention to current events likely caught last week’s story of documentarian Deia Schlosberg arrested while filming an oil pipeline protest in North Dakota. If needed, teachers can engage students in a quick research activity to update each other. Key questions: What’s the story? How does this relate to the First Amendment? How does a photojournalist’s role compare to that of a documentarian?

Photojournalists use the phrase “in plain view from public spaces” to describe in broad terms their interpretation of access and privacy as related to their First Amendment rights. What does this mean? Teachers can consider this as a warm-up writing prompt or partner conversation between students before sharing as a larger group.

To read more about photojournalists and the First Amendment, teachers can assign small groups to read and report on any of these articles:

NYT Lens blog: Criminalizing photography

University of Missouri protest “muscle” incident

Pennsylvania student shooting routine traffic stop

First Amendment Center: Photographs as speech

ACLU: What to do if you’re detained

Police, cameras and the Constitution

To tie in a media literacy component, teachers may add “Photography and the Law: Know Your Rights” from Photojojo. How is this article more or less credible? How does the material compare to the other articles under discussion? What factor(s) affected your analysis?


It’s likely that most journalism classes already discussed this photo from Aleppo and a related article
 back in August, but the connection here is strong between the power of a photo and why the world depends on photojournalists to capture what audiences need to see, regardless of how terrifying, depressing or controversial those images may be.

The National Press Photographers Association offers this statement about its advocacy work protecting photojournalists’ rights.
After reading related articles and discussing efforts underway to protect those constitutional freedoms, teachers may want to present powerful storytelling images that may spark debate about free speech and/or the ethical considerations photojournalists face. One option is to assign students to find and share photos on their own.

Here is a simple list of possible photos and/or photographers to research and discuss:

  • Yannis Behrakis, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography, on the refugee crisis in Greece
  • General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon” by Eddie Adams in 1968
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning photos taken by photojournalist Paul Watson of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu
  • Image galleries showing treatment of Iraq prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison complex
  • “The vulture and the little girl” by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in 1993
  • “The Falling Man” by Richard Drew during 9/11 attacks
  • “Fire on Marlborough Street” or “Fire escape collapse” by Stanley Forman
  • “The Burning Monk” by Malcolm Browne

From celebrating Free Speech Week and First Amendment protection of what photojournalists can do legally to the ongoing considerations of what they should do ethically, the topic is one worth exploring on a regular basis.

by Sarah Nichols, MJE

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