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Respecting the Press and Public Access During the BP Oil Spill

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June 28, 2010

We’ve heard countless stories of journalists trying to cover the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico being denied access in one way or another. Whether they’re trying to fly over the spill to take photos, gain access to the oil-covered beaches, or take pictures of the dead animals washing ashore, a “media clampdown” continues despite federal government assurances that access is “uninhibited.”

One BP representative told a Mother Jones reporter that BP could restrict access to the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge because “it’s BP’s oil.” And many reports indicate that local law enforcement has actually been cooperating with BP to restrict journalists’ access to the spill.

It’s this kind of news that prompted the ACLU of Louisiana to send a public letter (PDF) to the sheriffs of all Louisiana coastal parishes (or counties, to us non-Louisianans) reminding them of their obligation to respect the First Amendment rights of the media and the public. The letter states:

This letter is to notify you that members of the public have the right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to film, record, photograph, and document anything they observe in a public place. No one — neither law enforcement nor a private corporation — has the legal right to interfere with public access to public places or the recording of activities that occur there. Nor may law enforcement officials cooperate with private companies in denying such access to the public.

The letter cites other instances where press access has been restricted.

The ocean and coasts have already taken a beating from BP. Local law enforcement shouldn’t allow the First Amendment to take a beating too.

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