Last week, I received my first real-world lesson on the intersection of free press and national security. As a journalism student, I’ve read in my textbooks about the rights of journalists and what the First Amendment guarantees. In my ethics and media law classes, we’ve discussed journalists who are fighting to uphold their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. But Sept. 6, as I walked out of my introductory photography class, snapping pictures on a public sidewalk, the implications on our everyday lives of the level of fear in our society became painfully apparent.
I was not planning a civil rights experiment. I wasn’t even covering a story. I was just testing some of the functions on my brand new Nikon D40, which I had just purchased for class. I was snapping pictures of a row of flags and signs in front of a Veterans Affairs hospital across the street from my campus. (Ironically, one of the signs read, “The price of freedom can be seen here.”)
As I turned to leave a few minutes later, a VA security officer speed-walked over to me and demanded I hand over my camera. She ordered me to delete several of my photographs and took my student ID. Another officer approached and asked for my driver’s license. They took me into their office and questioned me about my “motives” and “purpose.” More of my pictures were deleted. My ID cards were photocopied.
When you’re a South-Asian Muslim woman wearing long sleeves and a headscarf on a 90-degree day in early September, the thought that security guards are overreacting solely based on your appearance tends to creep around in the back of your mind. You tell yourself you’re just being paranoid. But then you get asked if you’re a U.S. citizen -- and the creeping thought lands with a resounding thud.