The alarming arrest of a Chico journalist

Chico State University professor and faculty adviser to The Orion student newspaper

I do not envy the job that law officers have in dealing with drunkenness and rowdiness in Chico. Police deserve our gratitude for keeping the partying from escalating into something far worse, and I have no doubt they put up with a load of crap in the process.

That said, this is Chico, not Baghdad, and the men and women with the badges and the guns should not be permitted to trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens.

Unfortunately, that occurred very early Sunday, when an undercover officer from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control department handcuffed student journalist Misha Osinovskiy, confiscated his camera and film as “evidence,” and had him hauled off to jail.

Osinovskiy, a photographer for Chico State’s student newspaper, The Orion, was arrested on a trumped-up misdemeanor allegation of obstruction of justice. He spent several hours in custody—up close and personal with a collection of slobbering, odorous drunks—before being transported to the county jail in Oroville, where he was released at about 5 o’clock in the morning. Chico police returned the camera on Sunday night and, after further delay, the film early Monday.

Shortly after midnight Saturday, Osinovskiy and Orion reporter Sarah Schaale were covering the fall term’s first weekend of revelry. They had been interacting good-naturedly with Chico police throughout the night and happened upon a law officer in street clothes issuing a citation. Osinovskiy took a picture. The officer told him if he took another picture he’d be arrested. Osinovskiy, knowing that he has every right to take photos in public, took another picture. The officer cuffed Osinovskiy, who at that point identified himself as an Orion photographer.

The officer eventually got around to telling Osinovskiy that he was working undercover and feared for his safety if his picture were printed in the paper. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the officer’s concern, though writing citations at the bustling corner of Fourth and Chestnut on a Saturday night seems an unlikely locale to preserve one’s true identity.

The officer ultimately asked Osinovskiy if there was anything the photographer wanted to say that would keep him from being locked up. Osinovskiy assured the officer that the photos would not be printed—a promise that apparently was not good enough.

I am confident that Orion editors would never have published the photos of the undercover officer once his concerns were known to them.

But regardless, the point is that in this country it is still the journalists’ decision—not the government’s and not the police’s. I say still because it is downright alarming, if polls are any indication, how little contemporary Americans value a free press.

To me, the images of police jailing a journalist and confiscating his camera and film are particularly troubling. Such an abuse of power could have a chilling effect on the vigorous news coverage that an informed citizenry needs. It eats away at everyone’s rights.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey should swiftly refuse to bring any charges against Osinovskiy, and the ABC should apologize to the photographer and to The Orion.

In America, cops can’t arrest a person for taking pictures in public.

Unless, it seems, he’s a student journalist in Chico.