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ACLU files lawsuit in Minneapolis as journalists report police hostility nationwide

The police treatment of journalists during coverage of the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd is gaining attention as the number of reporters, cameramen and photographers who report being arrested, tear gassed or hit by rubber-coated bullets rises.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker had identified at least 41 arrests or detainments of journalists by law enforcement and 153 assaults (125 by police), including 33 physical attacks, 35 tear gassings, 21 pepper sprayings and 55 instances of being hit by rubber bullets or other projectiles.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a freelance journalist against the city of Minneapolis. “The press is under assault in our city,” the 42-page complaint says. Brian Hauss, an ACLU staff attorney, said the organization plans other similar lawsuits in other states.

The aggressiveness toward journalists as they cover a subject of high public interest can have a chilling effect on news gathering and, at the very least, removes reporters from the scene and prevents them from reporting essential information.

“When journalists can’t do their job, law enforcement and other officials act with impunity – endangering everyone who advocates for change,” Hauss wrote in a statement. 

Minneapolis City Attorney Erik Nilsson, in a statement to news organizations, said the city  “will review the allegations and take them seriously.”

“We continue to support the First Amendment rights of everyone in Minneapolis,” he said.

In an open letter Monday, 28 journalism and press freedom organizations called on law enforcement, mayors and governors to stop the assault against journalists.  On Tuesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a letter co-signed by 115 news organizations and press freedom groups, called on Minnesota officials to halt attacks and arrests of journalists. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker data, Minneapolis has had the most incidents involving law enforcement and journalists.

Across the country, reporters posted videos or accounts of themselves being harassed or arrested by law enforcement officials. Tuesday night New York City police officers forced two Associated Press reporters to stop reporting the protests in the city. In Philadelphia, Kristen A. Graham, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was arrested Monday night after curfew, even though the city’s curfew order specifically excludes journalists. 

Media lawyers stress that the First Amendment affords few legal protections to journalists covering potential conflict events like protests. But journalists do have the right to be in public spaces to report police and protests activity provided they do not interfere with police operations. Moreover, many city curfews have specific exceptions for journalists.

That doesn’t mean reporters such as the Inquirer’s Graham do not get detained. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker identified at least eight arrests for curfew violations in jurisdictions that had journalism waivers. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ curfew tracker has identified 92 jurisdictions across the country that have imposed curfews. Of those, about 20 do not have specific exemptions for reporters.

“We have people glued to the TV sets watching the news there and on social media. They’re watching to see if there are fires near where they live, or where their businesses are,” Chris Ison, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, said in a webinar Wednesday sponsored by the university’s Hubbard School of Journalism. “There’s no more important time for journalists to be given the freedom to cover things. … It’s pretty clear that the media need to be exempt from those (curfews).”

The Minnesota department of public safety has emphasized that journalists need to display their press credential prominently. The Minneapolis Star Tribune began issuing larger credentials to its reporters. 

Jane Kirtley, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and also a panelist in Wednesday’s webinar, said being more visible to police “sounds great in theory.”

“Sometimes journalists are targets for people that are either protesters or other agitators that happen to be on the scene,” she said. “If they see you are a journalist, they may come after you, smash your camera, attack you. So you have to balance the issue of making yourself visible to law enforcement versus making yourself a target to other people.”

Ison said circumstances and location often determine how visible reporters want to be.

“If you want to be able to move about a crowd and not be targeted by protesters, for instance, maybe you don’t want to necessarily have your credentials out,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t identify yourself as a reporter when you’re interviewing people. That you should do. But when police are around or nearby, you probably want to have your credentials out and make them very clear.”