Meet Our Alumni

Mickey Osterreicher ’98

Rising to the defense of photojournalists

The Law School hadn’t fully entered the digital age when Mickey Osterreicher ’98 started studying. In fact, he said, the main lecture rooms in O’Brian Hall barely had any electrical outlets. So he and his fellow early adopters brought their primitive laptops to class, and Osterreicher ran a 100-foot extension cord around the side of the room and plugged it into a power strip. Voila – a workaround that supplied the juice for taking notes there in the sixth row.

It was that kind of get-it-done spirit that helped Osterreicher transition from a career in photojournalism – he was a staff photographer for the old Buffalo Courier-Express and a longtime television videographer with Channel 7 – to a career in media law. Though he is based in Buffalo and is of counsel with the Buffalo firm Hiscock & Barclay, his primary work is as general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

“I was always interested in the law,” Osterreicher says. “I covered the Attica uprising and all of the court cases that came about as a result of that. I spent a great deal of time driving William Kunstler and Ramsey Clarke back and forth to the courthouse.”

“I’d been doing what I was doing for quite a while. I loved it, but I saw the business was changing and journalism was changing. I was thinking, what else could I do that I might love just as much?”

The answer, he decided, was media law, so he and a WKBW-TV colleague, reporter Steve Boyd, took the LSAT and plunged into law school. It was double duty for three years: classes from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., then work at Channel 7 from 2:30 to 11 o’clock. “One of the best pieces of advice I got,” he says, “is, ‘Take your books with you.’ A lot of being a journalist is waiting. Whenever we would sit around and have some downtime, I would be reading, and it was amazing how much I could read.”

He also shot as a freelancer for ESPN in that time, and claims a unique distinction: Who else in history has answered his pager to learn that he had passed the bar, and then been high-fived by both Jim Kelly and Chris Berman?

In his early practice he did a lot of law guardian work, and eventually he became director of legal affairs for the Erie County Department of Social Services. But he also had been doing some work for NPPA, of which he was a longtime member, and that evolved into his current position.

His work as the organization’s general counsel involves, he says, a lot of travel and a lot of multitasking. But it allows him to bring his experience of the day-to-day life of the photojournalist, as well as his legal training, into a role in which he can advocate for visual journalists of all sorts.

Osterreicher says an “ongoing assault on photography” has grown out of the fear and suspicion that arose after the 9/11 attacks. “Anybody with a camera was suspect,” he says. “Back when I started it was very rare to see people with professional cameras. Now, with the exponential proliferation of cellphone cameras, everyone’s taking pictures. There are so many instances of photographers being interfered with or arrested for nothing more than taking pictures or video out in public.”

To address that, Osterreicher has been leading training sessions that bring together journalists and law enforcers, doing some education about the First Amendment and the free-speech rights of visual journalists. “It won’t make any difference if journalists know their rights if police don’t respect those rights,” he says. (He also can see the law enforcement perspective, having been a uniformed reserve deputy with the Erie County Sheriff’s Department since 1976.)

That’s just one of many issues that he addresses as NPPA’s general counsel. There are contract issues, legal issues around staff cutbacks and the work of independent contractors, copyright issues concerning images appropriated on the Web.

“Photographers are being squeezed at both ends, in terms of access to events and misappropriation of their images,” Osterreicher says. One example is the recent dust-up between the White House press corps and the executive branch over an ongoing dispute to limit news photographers’ access to the president in favor of the official White House photographer. NPPA joined with 37 other media organizations to protest the practice; Osterreicher helped draft the letter and persuaded a number of other groups to join it.

There are ethical issues as well. Osterreicher wrote a letter of protest when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arranged an official picture, taken on the steps of the Capitol, of all of the women in Congress. Four of them showed up late and missed the shot – but they were then Photoshopped into the picture. “We objected to that,” Osterreicher says, noting that the practice contravened the association’s code of ethics requiring that each photo must represent a true and accurate picture of what happened. “What if one of these women had used this picture as an alibi in a murder case?” he says.

“It’s good when these incidents become teachable moments for some people,” he says. “Some public officials have never thought about the issues we raise, but they all took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is part of that. I think they get a little better appreciation for those rights.”

Another victory came recently when the U.S. Copyright Office endorsed the association’s proposal to establish a small claims copyright board, which would enable photographers to seek compensation for misappropriated images without the usual formalities of bringing suit in federal court.

The NPPA recently named Osterreicher as one of two winners this year of its top honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, calling him “a tireless defender of photographers’ rights.” Said NPPA past president Sean D. Elliot, “As assaults upon the First Amendment have mounted, we have seen Mickey Osterreicher raise his game to new heights. Mickey can be counted on to wade into any fight on the side of justice. No affront to the Constitution is too small to earn his attention.”