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Smithsonian looking into incident involving photojournalist at Air and Space Museum

Security guards grab photojournalist Kristoffer Tripplaar during a Dec. 5 protest at the McDonald’s at Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The Smithsonian Institution is looking into an incident last week involving a D.C. photojournalist who said he was “wrestled” to the ground.

Kristoffer Tripplaar was at the National Air and Space Museum on Dec. 5 covering a protest by fast-food workers calling for better pay. Workers in more than 100 cities around the United States. had planned to strike to demand higher wages, with one such protest taking place at the McDonald’s at the Air and Space Museum.

The protest was “pretty mild,” Tripplaar said. But at one point, he said, security guards approached a video journalist for the Associated Press and ordered him to stop filming before removing him.

Because the video journalist was being pushed toward Tripplaar, he leaned his body toward the video journalist to keep from being knocked over and pivoted to protect his cameras. But a security guard, rather than the video journalist, bumped into him, he said.

“Then another security guard ran up and started yelling that I’d hit the other security guard,” he said. “Then another guard ran up and the three of them wrestled me to the ground.”

Tripplaar said he tried explaining that he didn’t hit the guard, something he also outlined in a formal complaint he sent to the Smithsonian this week.

Once he was on the ground, a supervisor came over, told them to stop and offered to help Tripplaar up.

Video of the incident was posted on Instagram by Matt Laslo, a journalist who was covering the event for WAMU:

“It was kind of surreal,” Laslo said.

Smithsonian spokesman John Gibbons said Friday that the Office of Protection Services is “looking into the matter” right now.

“They are reviewing photographs and video, but they have not come to a conclusion yet,” he said.

Tripplaar, who was covering the event for the photo agency Sipa USA, said he has been a credentialed photographer in D.C. for more than six years. He has covered events at the White House and on Capitol Hill, while his photos have been displayed by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Rolling Stone and other media outlets.

“I don’t even know how many protests I’ve covered…but I’ve never, ever been grabbed like that,” he said.

Tripplaar said it was weird to see photos and videos of himself on the ground after the protest. One photo captured him with a confused smile on his face, he said, and at that moment he said he was thinking, “Did this really happen? This is the Air and Space Museum.”

Gibbons said there are different policies for regular Smithsonian visitors and for members of the media. Tourists and other visitors are free to take photographs or shoot video inside the museum, which includes the McDonald’s at the Air and Space Museum, according to Gibbons.

But working journalists need to get approval from the Smithsonian and be escorted by museum staff, he said. That’s to protect “the privacy of our visitors,” Gibbons said. “They may not have necessarily come to the museum to be filmed as part of a news story.”

Laslo said that security told journalists before the event not to take pictures, though once the protest began he said the photographers all started taking pictures.

“And we all disregarded that,” he said. “That’s our job, right?”

Tripplaar said he never heard anyone say anything about not taking pictures or filming video, adding that he walked in with two cameras on his shoulders, “so it wasn’t exactly like I was sneaking around.”

He went back to covering the protest after the situation involving security. But after the event, he said, he went to the supervisor who had come to help him and asked for the names of the officers involved. The supervisor and the guard instead pushed him toward the exit, he said.

Tripplaar said he wants the incident investigated. And in the complaint he filed this week, he also wrote that the Smithsonian should publicly affirm that journalists can report inside its museums without having “to work in fear of a reaction from security officers similar to my experience.”

UPDATE – Thursday at 11:45 a.m.:

Mickey H. Osterreicher, the National Press Photographers Association’s general counsel, wrote in after this post was published to take issue with the Smithsonian’s response. For one thing, Osterreicher noted, the main Smithsonian Web site’s security page only says that working media members “who need to use a tripod or monopod” need permission and a museum escort.

He also wrote that it is “nonsense to suggest” that the Smithsonian is protecting the privacy of visitors who cannot reasonably expect privacy in a public place like a museum.

And having one policy for members of the public and a stricter policy for members of the press clearly curtails the First Amendment rights of the media, Osterreicher said.

“While the press may not have a greater right of access than the public they have no less right either,” he wrote.