NPS Security Confused About the First Amendment

Monterey County Weekly | April 13, 2013
We were striving for a metaphor. What we got instead was an object lesson in the First Amendment and the power of bullies with badges.

On April 2, I sent Weekly photographer Nic Coury to the Naval Postgraduate School, whose upheaval in the wake of a damning Inspector General’s report is the subject of this week’s cover story by Sara Rubin (p. 18), to shoot pictures for use with the story in print or online. Coury has been on the NPS campus numerous times, and had been there several times to shoot Rubin’s piece. But Weekly founder Bradley Zeve had an idea for a theme of “behind the gates,” a la, “what exactly goes on behind those gates,” and wanted Coury to get a shot of those iron beauties.

Coury stood on the public sidewalk at the intersection of Ninth Street and Sloat Avenue, a spot from which the school is completely visible from the street and where it’s likely nearly 20,000 cars pass by every weekday. He proceeded to take pictures. He had been there for approximately 10 minutes when base security stopped him, told him he was being detained and questioned him.

They would let him go, he told me in a phone call, if he deleted the pictures he took.

It was around April Fool’s Day and I figured he was screwing with me. He assured me he wasn’t.

I thought about it for a few and told him this: “Do what you have to do to get back here. We’ll regroup and decide how to proceed,” which in English means, “I don’t have enough money in petty cash to pay for your bail and I don’t know which exactly of our attorneys I would call for this one anyway.”

And I didn’t know exactly what our rights are with regards to shooting a military installation from a public space. After hearing from several members of the school’s public information team, I’m not entirely sure they do either.

We were told they would be happy to escort Nic on a shoot. And then we were told: “It is illegal for you to take pictures of the NPS without first obtaining permission… Obviously what we can’t do, if you’re not on our property, we can’t physically go over and restrain you, but it is not permitted under the law to take pictures and we would want you to ask permission.”

But so far, nobody has been able to cite exactly what law they mean. They might be referring to 18 U.S.C. 795, which says the president can define certain military installations “as requiring protection against the general dissemination of information relative thereto.” The code makes it illegal to make any picture, drawing, map or graphical representation without permission of the commanding officer of the post, and even then, we would have to submit the work for possible censorship if they deem necessary. We have been told NPS is designated a high-security installation. We asked for proof of that in writing last week and have yet to receive it, although NPS spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Clinton says he is meeting with the base commander in charge of security and expects to have clarification soon.

On April 4, at my direction, Coury went back to the school. A few minutes later, he called and said he was again being detained, but they would let him go if he deleted the shots. This time, I said, “Absolutely not.” A few minutes later, I get a text: “Pick up your phone. They’re calling Monterey PD to take my camera.”

Neither I nor anyone else at the Weekly has any interest in jeopardizing the safety of the students attending NPS. But consider this: If you can see it from the street, it’s not high security.

According to Monterey Police Lt. Leslie Sonne, NPS police, whether civilian contractors or DoD, are civilians once they cross over onto public property.

“They have no jurisdiction or power in the state of California whatsoever,” she says. “Our officers would not respond to them saying, ‘Arrest this person.’ We are not aware of any state law that prohibits someone from standing on a right-of-way and taking pictures of something that can be seen from the public’s point of view.”

In short, we believe the detainment was illegal, and the threats heavy-handed and beyond the scope of base security. DoD police told him he was not free to leave. When Coury asked under which law he wasn’t allowed to shoot, DoD Deputy Chief of Police Shayne Gardner told him if he wanted to fight, Coury could stand before a judge. He said he was going to have Coury arrested, confiscate his camera and delete the pictures.

“We can arrest you and you can find out that interpretation in court,” he told Coury.

In the end, Coury deleted the pictures so we could once again get on the phone with our lawyers.

But for all the technological work going on inside the gates at NPS, perhaps gate security should know this: It took about five minutes to restore the pictures once Coury got back to the office.

Monterey County Weekly

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