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APME joins protest of federal proposal to restrict filming in wilderness areas

Seventeen news organizations, photographers’ organizations and First Amendment advocacy groups sent a letter to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service this week opposing the Forest Service’s proposal to make permanent its interim directive on filming in the nation’s wilderness areas.

News organization, including the Associated Press, told Chief Thomas Tidwell in the letter dated Wednesday we also are troubled by the proposal to apply new criteria in deciding whether to issue a permit for filming in Congressionally-designated wilderness areas.

"Language in the proposal is vague enough to allow too much latitude in its interpretation -- latitude that could include restricting or banning news photography and videography on public lands," said Alan D. Miller, president of APME. "That would be an unconstitutional and unacceptable infringement on a free press."

Miller said the organizations that signed the letter of protest have asked the Forest Service to include them in a discussion of the proposal and to reconsider its position on the matter.

Here is the letter:

October 1, 2014

Thomas L. Tidwell
Chief, U.S. Forest Service
USDA, Forest Service
201 14th Street SW
Washington, DC 20250-1124
RE: Proposed Directive, FSH 2709.11, Chapter 40

Chief Tidwell:
The undersigned seventeen news organizations, photographers’ organizations and First
Amendment advocacy groups oppose the Forest Service’s proposal to make permanent its interim
directive on filming in the nation’s wilderness areas. We are also troubled by the proposal to apply
new criteria in deciding whether to issue a permit for filming in Congressionally-designated
wilderness areas.

We are concerned by the proposed permanent directive’s vague language and failure to make a
clear distinction between still photography, film and videography for newsgathering purposes and
“commercial” film and still photography. But even more disconcerting is the imposition of a
permitting scheme for news-related photography or videography in the first place, especially when
some of the criteria applicable to permits for Congressionally-designated wilderness areas in
particular seem to have no relationship to maintenance of the actual wilderness areas and instead
are more focused on ensuring films and photos convey a particular image or message.

While we appreciate your most recent statement that the “US Forest Service remains committed
to the First Amendment,” the language of the “provisions in the draft directive” does not make it
clear that it does “not apply to news gathering or activities.”

Additionally if the proposed directive “does not apply to news coverage, gathering information for
a news program or documentary,” as you state in your press release, will the Service still require
such individuals or organizations to make application for a permit anyway? And if not, how will
the Service determine whether “a project falls outside of that scope,” thus triggering the permitting
process?

You have stated that you take “First Amendment rights very seriously.” But despite your assertion
that “the directive pertains to commercial photography and filming only – if you’re there to gather
news or take recreational photographs, no permit would be required,” representatives of the
Service have previously deemed editorial/newsgathering photography and filming as being
commercial in nature under the current directive and in fact required a permit for such activity.
Of even greater concern is the fact that a permit could be arbitrarily denied because a member of
the Service with such authority might believe that a news story did not comport with the vague
notion of protecting “wilderness values.” Again, this seems particularly likely where
Congressionally-designated wilderness areas are concerned.

We contend the proposed permanent policy limits far more speech than is necessary to achieve the
government’s stated purpose. Not only does requiring a permit for ordinary newsgathering create
a chilling effect on freedom of speech and of the press, but also granting the Service the ability to
deny such a permit in the case of a journalist or news organization would, we believe, create an
unconstitutional licensing obligation or – worse – a prior restraint on those newsgathering
activities.

Further, we are concerned not just for individuals traditionally identified as newsgatherers, but
also for freelance visual journalists and members of the public who may use cameras on a
speculative basis to photograph or film activities on public lands without having an assured media
outlet for their work.

The proposed policy’s language regarding payment somehow transforms a visual journalist’s work
for editorial photography (even on speculation) into a commercial venture. Therefore, we strongly
urge the Forest Service to include us in any public meetings and then continue to work closely
with us to craft an unambiguously worded policy that protects not only our natural resources but
our First Amendment guarantees.

Thank you very much for your time and attention in this matter. We look forward to your response.
Sincerely,

Mickey H. Osterreicher

National Press Photographers Association General Counsel

On behalf of:
American Photographic Artists
American Society of Media Photographers
American Society of News Editors
Associated Press
Associated Press Media Editors
Associated Press Photo Managers
Association of Alternative Newsmedia
Digital Media Licensing Association
National Federation of Press Women
National Newspaper Association
National Press Club
Newspaper Association of America
North American Nature Photography Association
Radio Television Digital News Association
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Society of Environmental Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists

Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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