Student who was arrested while photographing cop takes suit to trial

PHILADELPHIA — A college student arrested as he photographed a Philadelphia police encounter with a homeless woman said Wednesday he tried to be “a fly on the wall” until he was put in handcuffs.

However, a city attorney described then-photojournalism student Coulter Loeb as “a meddlesome 24-year-old” with “very high-minded ideas about government” and the role of media.

Federal jurors must decide who started the confrontation in Rittenhouse Square in July 2011 and whether Officer George Gaspar Jr. had cause to handcuff Loeb and charge him with disorderly conduct.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Loeb, argued in the lawsuit that Philadelphia police routinely harassed or arrested people trying to photograph them.

Loeb, now 27, of Cincinnati, was a photojournalism student at the University of Cincinnati at the time. He spent an hour at a police station in handcuffs after his arrest; the citation was later dismissed.

The civil rights lawsuit accuses police of malicious prosecution and false arrest. First Amendment claims were dismissed before trial when a judge ruled that courts in 2011 had not firmly established the right to photograph or videotape police.

Assistant City Solicitor John C. Coyle told jurors Wednesday that Loeb was interfering with Gaspar’s work as he tried to remove an overnight camper from tony Rittenhouse Square, which Coyle called the “crown jewel” of the city’s park system.

“Like many other college students, he has some very high-minded ideas about government, the role of government in interactions with its citizenry and the role of the media in observing those interactions,” Coyle said in his opening statements.

He described Gaspar as “a Philly guy all his life” and a former metal worker who became a police officer 12 years ago and has spent the past seven years patrolling the small park.

“They’re not shooting at me in Rittenhouse,” Gaspar said of the park’s relative calm.

“It was Police Officer Gaspar who approached Coulter and not the other way around … and it was he who was agitated and in Coulter’s face,” ACLU lawyer Molly Tack-Hooper said in her opening.

“Coulter didn’t do anything to interfere with what the police officer was doing,” she said. “All Coulter did was take pictures that Officer Gasper thought he wouldn’t like.”

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