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Obama Skirts Free Speech Issue Over Kids Pics

By jeannesager |

ObamaThere’s nothing that gets me more riled than someone constricting the freedoms of the press. Except maybe the president of the United States trying to repress the press.

President Obama has inflamed White House photographers yet again over his on-again, off-again rules for photographing the first kids.

After asking for respect for young Sasha and Malia’s privacy during the campaign, the president has allowed certain scripted moments to be sent out over the wires. But when an unscripted moment comes up – even with photographers allowed onto the premises and in plain view of said photographers, the Obama administration has been quick to advise the press they’d better not see that picture out in the public.

According to an article in the AP yesterday, Sasha Obama was standing on the Truman balcony of the White House when the president happened to look up and see her. Sending a wave in her direction, he was answered with a wave back . . . which photographers caught (see the two together over at Jezebel). Photographers, I’ll remind you, who were already invited in to take photographs.

So when the White House told them they couldn’t print that particular pic, is it any wonder the press got pissed?

Freedom of the press is not nearly as straightforward as the general public would believe. And yet, it affords us powers that many in the public don’t understand. Standing at a stree fair, taking pictures for my local newspaper, I’ve been informed by parents that they’ll take my camera after I take their child’s picture. Sure, if they want to see the other side of a set of bars.

If your child is in public, a photographer can take their picture. It’s that simple. Which explains why there are myriad pictures of celebrities’ kids out there, why the paparazzi are still in business.

And yet, there are rules. We can’t, for example, trespass. There are restrictions in private settings, and although my photojournalism jobs have never taken me quite this far, I would assume the White House falls under most of those private settings and more. The White House is a national museum, but it is also a home, not to mention home of the leader of the free world. Much of the place falls under the exclusionary rules to freedome of the press dealing with matters of national security.

But is it fair to say the kids fall under that too? Because as many have pointed out, the Obama girls are seen in public. Remember the ice cream shot? The Parade photos?

Of course, those all fell under the “approved” photos by the Obama White House, as do the photos on the Obama Flickr page, which news organizations can ask to use (although that is sometimes rejected). The point being, the Obamas have not made this a “no photos of our girls” White House. They’ve made it a “no photos of our girls . . . unless we feel like it” White House, and one many critics say is more of a “no photos of our girls . . . unless it can win the president points or make him look good” White House. Not to mention the complaints that the Obama White House is hurting the money-making abilities of certain members of the press corps by disseminating its own photos and saying no to the professional photos.

As a parent, I’m willing to give him a certain benefit of the doubt. He wants to protect his kids. But as a reporter, I must say that protecting your kids means keeping them out of the limelight, period. If you don’t want the press taking photos of your daughter on the balcony, tell her to stay off the balcony.

If they’ve taken the picture, as a man who swore to protect the Constitution, you sigh and move on. Especially as there was nothing untoward happening, no paparazzi sneaking around the back of the White House lawn or slipping in to their playroom.

You don’t have to like paparazzi or even more legitimate news photographers, Mr. President. But they’re just doing their jobs, jobs protected by our Constitution. Let them do it.

Image: AP

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About jeannesager



Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and photographer living in upstate New York with her husband and daughter, Jillian. She maintains a blog of her award-winning columns at

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0 thoughts on “Obama Skirts Free Speech Issue Over Kids Pics

  1. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    I don’t agree with it, but I understand. The Obamas are incredibly image-conscious and Sasha must have been playing hard, because she hadn’t seen a brush in a little while. They probably preferred not to have her photo out there looking like she just came from a wind tunnel, but they can’t SAY that. And the press isn’t going to be sympathetic that a not-so-flattering picture of a little girl is going to become fodder for every jackass blogger who wants to portray their child as neglected or worse. They are going to, rightfully, see it as being restricted.

  2. msbeck says:

    I completely feel we as American citizens do NOT need to see pictures of our presiden’ts children and if he wants to restrict what photos he chooses – there is NO national interest to not abide by this request. Are photos of Obama completely fair game? Absolutely. But the fact that this blogger wouldn’t respect a parent who has asked her not to use a photo of their child? Makes me wonder the motivations behind her refusal. I believe in free press and am a writer by trade, but sometimes there is a fine line between journalism and paparazzi and we don’t need to defend the paparazzi’s motives as being “freedom of speech for the good of the people.”

  3. jeannesager says:

    msbeck, the problem is where you draw the line. I’ve had people ask me not to put their DWI in the paper too – should I leave that out just to be nice? How about leaving out a picture of a dead man that the newspaper took WHILE he was alive and was in our possession – just because his mother asked us not to use it?

    The problem is that there can’t be degrees in this sort of decision. You are either an unbiased reporter or a biased reporter. There is no gray area. Asking me to not use the picture is one thing. Requiring that I don’t use the photo is asking me to violate my journalistic integrity.

    You have to remember that what happens in a public place stays in a public place. And that includes photography of someone in a public place. Saying it doesn’t apply to a president just because he’s the president is the first step in waving goodbye to the First Amendment.

    I’m curious msbeck (honestly curious – not being sarcastic here) – you say you’re a writer, what sort of writing do you do? Would you classify yourself as a journalist?

  4. Manjari says:

    I agree with the comments on Jezebel – she is so adorable, and that smile is awesome. No way windblown hair could ruin that picture.

  5. mightydoll says:

    Tell her to stay off the balcony? Really? So she should hide in her own home, and lead a sequestered childhood so that photographers don’t have to suffer the disappointment of not being able to use a photo? Sounds like a lot of spoiled nonsense to me.

  6. jeannesager says:

    Anyone who is interested in more on this issue – and mightydoll, I address some of your questions – check out the Babble Talk Radio I did on this with Brett Singer:

  7. [...] me. And the right to say it out loud, or, in this case, wear it on her chest. If she doesn’t, my right to fight for women everywhere will be at [...]

  8. [...] week Jeanne and I went on the air live to chat about Barack Obama’s photo rules for his kids. Someone from the general public even called in to join [...]

  9. [...] at 9:30am (EST). Jeanne Sager will be joining me once again. We’ll continue our discussion of Barack Obama’s habit of selectively allowing the press to photograph his daughters, my post about the supposedly family unfriendly White House, and then Jeanne will tie those two [...]

  10. tib says:

    seems pretty hypocritical and I’m a fan but I’m starting to doubt the guy more and more with stuff like this

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