Student arrested while photographing cop takes suit to trial
Mar. 04, 2015
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A college student arrested as he photographed a Philadelphia police encounter with a homeless woman said Wednesday he tried to be "a fly on the wall" until he was put in handcuffs.
However, a city attorney described then-photojournalism student Coulter Loeb as "a meddlesome 24-year-old" with "very high-minded ideas about government" and the role of media.
Federal jurors must decide who started the confrontation in Rittenhouse Square in July 2011 and whether Officer George Gaspar Jr. had cause to handcuff Loeb and charge him with disorderly conduct.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Loeb, argue that Philadelphia police routinely harassed or arrested people trying to photograph or videotape them. Yet a judge ruled before trial that the federal appeals court in Philadelphia had not "clearly established" a First Amendment right to photograph police as of 2011.
"Whether the Third Circuit will eventually decide to follow what appears to be a growing trend in other circuits to recognize a First Amendment right to observe and record police activity is, of course, not for this court to decide, even if there are good policy reasons (that) adopt that change," U.S. District William H. Yohn Jr. wrote in a January pretrial order that covered two similar cases.
He therefore threw out Loeb's free-speech claim, leaving a jury to weigh the Fourth Amendment issues of false arrest and malicious prosecution. The jury is expected to get the case Friday after a weather-related day off.
Loeb was a photojournalism student at the University of Cincinnati at the time of his arrest. He spent an hour at a police station in handcuffs; the citation was later dismissed.
"I don't think he's a bad guy. I think he might have made a mistake," Loeb, now 27, of Cincinnati, testified as his civil rights trial began Wednesday. "But we're both part of a system that's much larger than us."
Assistant City Solicitor John C. Coyle told jurors that Loeb was interfering with Gaspar's work as he tried to remove an overnight camper from tony Rittenhouse Square.
"Like many other college students, he has some very high-minded ideas about government, the role of government in interactions with its citizenry and the role of the media in observing those interactions," Coyle said in his opening statements.
Gaspar has been patrolling the park for seven years. The work mostly involves nuisance-type violations such as littering or urinating in the fountain. He said he tries to de-escalate situations and usher petty offenders out of the park rather than arrest them. But Loeb, he said, got between him and the woman, put his hand on her shoulder and refused his orders to move away.
"He looked me up and down, and then took one step back. That to me was being a wise guy," said Gaspar, who said he refrained from charging him with more than a summary offense.
"He was a young man. Didn't look like he needed the electric chair to be punished here," the officer said.