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Students’ First Amendment rights questioned

Editor’s note: Alejandro Romero, one of the students quoted in this story, is also The Minaret’s multimedia editor. He did not contribute to the writing or the editing of this article in any way, and did not read the article before publication.

By Alexandra Tirado

Senior journalism students Alejandro Romero, Jamie Zale and Veronica Brown were forced by public transit police at Marion Transit Center to stop recording and delete footage they had shot for a class assignment on Jan. 24. The incident, which took place in front of a bus terminal, is a violation of their First Amendment rights, which includes freedom of speech and the press. The Supreme Court interprets this amendment to mean people are allowed to freely record in public spaces.

“[Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART)] and Marion Transit Center are a public property, they receive taxpayers’ money,” Romero said. “We were on a public space and, although we were told we needed a permit, that is not accurate.”

The group, who are trying to make a documentary about the benefits of public transportation for their Senior Project seminar, headed to Marion Transit Center to get some B-roll footage for their documentary. It was when Romero was recording a bus pulling into the station that problems started for them.

“I positioned myself in a way where the bus was pulling up to the curve, and it was coming towards the camera,” Romero said. “I was filming a man getting off the bus and, when the man saw us, he approached me and asked if we were taking a picture. I responded that I was videorecording, and from that moment on, things started to get a little out of hand.”

The man started complaining that he did not want to have his image used for their project and, even after Romero explained that he had recorded the shot using white balance, meaning that the man’s face would be almost unrecognizable in the footage, the man demanded to have the video deleted.

Romero came to his teammate’s defense and subsequently deleted the shot and the man left. However, their troubles were far from over. Two security guards then came to them and asked them if they had a permit to record.

“They approached us in a way where they made us feel like we were doing something wrong or illegal,” Romero said. “We weren’t informed about our rights or about what we can and can’t do as students. The guards then made us delete the [entire] footage.”

After the incident, the group went back to talk with Stephanie Tripp, chair of the communication department, who is currently overseeing their project. Upon hearing what happened, Tripp felt terrible about what happened to her students and demanded to know what was the basis of HART’s security’s abuse.

“As a citizen I would want them to explain to me what law they are appealing to,” Tripp said. “I would like for them to show me that law to prove that this isn’t something they are just deciding to do because they thought it was appropriate or something.”

Tripp found it upsetting that students or anyone at all would be denied their basic rights. Because of this, she made it clear to the group that they should go back to Marion Transit Center and exercise their First Amendment right by getting the footage they needed.

And so, on Jan. 31, one week after the first incident, the group went back to resume their project.

“We are back again where our rights were violated,” Romero said. “We are in the place where they told us we couldn’t report, back on their ‘property.’”

The students took all sorts of precautions this time around, including bringing along a copy of Kenneth Kobré’s Photojournalism: The Professional’s Approach bookmarked in the “Law” chapter in case they had to defend their rights to record in a public space. They also had the unrelenting support of their professor.

“Dr. Tripp contacted HART demanding to let us exercise our rights and come record our footage,” Zale said. “However, the amount of security guards we see this time around is enormous. We are just gonna see how this turns out.”

After the group got some shots from across the street, it was time to go back to terminal D, the spot where they were told to delete their footage the first time.

“I am literally so nervous; it’s like PTSD from last time,” Brown said. “I just don’t like to be yelled at.”

The students went to a corner where Romero was trying to get a similar shot as the one he had recorded the week before when a security guard approached them again. The guard, who refused to be named, told them that they could not record on HART’s property and pointed to a sign on the wall that read “No photographs.” The guard later explained that people needed permits to come record and that it was HART’s private property.

HART is considered a public form of transportation whose funding comes 51.7 percent from Ad Valorem tax revenue, 14.7 percent from federal grants, 7.7 percent from state grants and 1.3 percent from local funds, according to a January 2017 goHART blog.

The students were yet again asked to leave premises and did not record the footage they needed.

“It is so sad, because we are just trying to make something positive and it seems like they don’t want us to,” Brown said. “If they would let us tell them the whole story they would understand that we are doing this to highlight the good sides of public transportation and how it is a nice alternative to get where you need to go.”

After the second incident, Tripp contacted the director of safety and security of HART, Collin Mulloy. She and the students got a well-deserved apology for the way they were treated back in Marion Transit Center.

The Minaret reached out to Mulloy for a comment but he did not respond.

“I felt really bad that this happened to them,” Tripp said. “But I am also proud that they learned what their rights are and that they carried themselves in the best way they could.”
And, even though they had a bad experience, Zale doesn’t think that should change their mentality towards public transportation.

“I still think it is a great system,” Zale said. “But the security needs to be educated on HART in general and the law. It is a shame that a few uneducated individuals could ruin a wonderful system for others.”

In the light of these events, the students decided to change their documentary’s topic to one that is closer to their hearts: freedom of press for college students.

“Our main goal will be to inform future journalism and communication students on what their rights are at the time of recording a news story,” Romero said.

Their new documentary will begin where the last one ended: the Marion Transit Center.

“We decided to go back there and record on their public property,” Romero said. “We want to show students what the appropriate places to record and interview people are, and hopefully, they can avoid what happened to us.”

The writer can be reached at alexandra.tirado@theminaretonline.com

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