Temple Student Sues Philly Police After Being Arrested for Photojournalism Class Assignment

A Temple University student is suing a pair of Philadelphia police officers over a two-year-old incident in which the student says he was mistreated, falsely arrested and prevented from practicing journalism.

On a whim one evening in March 2012, Temple film and media arts major Ian Van Kuyk snapped photos of police pulling over a neighbor’s car near his apartment in South Philadelphia. The pictures were part of a “night-photography assignment” he was completing for a photojournalism course.

In an interview with the blog Photography is Not a Crime, Van Kuyk said he stayed more than 15 feet from the traffic stop at all times and did not use flash while taking shots of the police. As he put it, “I didn’t want them to say I was affecting their investigation.”


Regardless, officers Samuel Allen and Santos Higgins objected to the photographic intrusion, apprehending Van Kuyk on charges of “obstructing justice, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, engaging in fighting and hindering apprehension, which is a felony.”

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, “The officers allegedly pushed, shoved and threw Van Kuyk to the ground before handcuffing him. Van Kuyk’s girlfriend [Meghan Feighan], who tried to rescue his camera [while he was being taken into custody], was also charged with obstruction and disorderly conduct.”

All charges against both Van Kuyk and Feighan were eventually dropped. But the circumstances surrounding their initial imprisonment received national media attention and led to the involvement of several leading journalism and First Amendment groups.

In a letter to Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) argued, “There is no excuse for your officers to intentionally disregard a citizen’s right to photograph an event occurring in a public place. Law enforcement agencies are established to uphold and enforce existing laws, not to use them as a pretext to punish someone exercising their free speech right to photograph in public. … His rights were not only stripped, they were trampled.”


This alleged trampling appeared to go against stated police protocol, specifically a memo issued by commissioner Ramsey in September 2011. As it reads, “[P]olice personnel shall not interfere with any member of the general public or individuals temporarily detained from photographing, videotaping or audibly recording police personnel while conducting official business or while engaging in an official capacity in any public space.”

To that end, a staff editorial in The Temple News, Temple’s student newspaper, condemned the officers’ actions as a “blatant abuse of power and disregard for freedom of speech.”

As the paper’s editors at the time contended, “Anyone doing anything in public has no reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore, it is legal to photograph them. Police officers are certainly no exception to this law, and should know it. … The Temple News wants all students to understand that it is not within the rights of a police officer to arrest someone for taking a picture. Students should know and understand what their rights are, and when those rights are being violated.”

Now two years later, Van Kuyk and Feighan are formally fighting this alleged violation. They have filed a lawsuit against Allen and Higgins in Common Pleas Court requesting “compensatory and punitive damages for assault, battery, false arrest and imprisonment and malicious prosecution.”

According to the attorney representing them, “The police, we don’t think, should view someone who is photographing or videotaping their activity as an adversary. If you’re a public servant and you’re doing your job and doing it well, then video evidence or photographic evidence can only help you.”

This type of evidence can also at times help the public. As the Daily News confirms, “Sometimes a camera is the only thing between an innocent person and a jail cell.”


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