"It's an improvement if we now have recognition by the appellate court that there is such a thing as a statutory mandate to let the press in and give them some reasonable chance to cover a disaster from close quarters," said Terry Francke, legal counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.
In other instances, Francke said, police have essentially ignored the law allowing media access to disasters. When a major earthquake struck Coalinga in May, 1983, for instance, the press was barred from the entire city for more than a day and then only allowed to walk through on tightly-guided tours, he said.
"It became all too apparent that most of the officers on the scene--sheriff's people, the California Highway Patrol, and some police departments--weren't apparently that conversant with the statutory access law and really had to be told about it," Francke said.
In San Diego, city officials said the court ruling would not change the way police deal with the media at disaster scenes.
"I don't think this is going to result in any confusion whatsoever regarding the needs of law enforcement versus the needs of the news media," said Eugene Gordon, the deputy city attorney who argued the case during the trial and appeal. "If anything, it was a clarification."
Police spokesman Bill Robinson, who handled media relations at the PSA crash site in 1978, said the arrest of Leiserson and the brief detention of Barry Fitzsimmons, a photographer for the San Diego Union and Tribune, prompted police to develop written policies for dealing with the press at disasters.
The policy, he said, is to be "extremely open" with the media. But while the rules say the press will have free access to disaster sites after being warned of potential dangers, Robinson acknowledged that individual officers "have occasional brushes" with reporters and photographers under the stress of field conditions.
Ironically, in fact, police made their first arrest of a member of the press since the PSA crash just last week, when a cameraman for KCST-TV was arrested for allegedly interfering with firefighters during a blaze at U.S. International University.
David Linder, executive producer of the station's newscasts, said Thursday that the citation against cameraman Noe Gonzalez was dropped a few days later.
Fitzsimmons said Thursday that he was still awaiting a trial date for a federal court suit challenging his detention the morning PSA Flight 182 crashed in North Park. Police-press relations have improved since the clashes that day, he said--in part because they prompted him to establish the San Diego News Photographers Assn.
"Through them, we work hand in hand with the police department, and we work really well," Fitzsimmons said.