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Updated: June 3, 2020

ACLU files suit on behalf of journalists in Minnesota

The American Civil Liberties Union says it is filing a class-action lawsuit and asking a Minnesota court to stop what it calls "unconstitutional conduct targeting journalists."

"The past week has been marked by an extraordinary escalation of unlawful force deliberately targeting reporters," the ACLU says in Wednesday's filing.

The organization says it intends to file suits in other states, as well, since members of the media have been impacted in more than a dozen states as protestors take to the streets to demand justice for the death of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police.

"We are facing a full-scale assault on the First Amendment freedom of the press," Brian Hauss, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement. "We will not let these official abuses go unanswered. This is the first of many lawsuits the ACLU intends to file across the country. Law enforcement officers who target journalists will be held accountable."

Reporters have been arrested by police from Florida to Nevada; pelted by police rubber bullets fired by police from Washington, D.C. to California; and attacked by protesters from Arizona to Pennsylvania. In one of the highest-profile examples, a CNN crew was briefly taken into custody on Friday by Minnesota State Police on live TV. The state's governor apologized for the wrongful arrest.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker said on Tuesday it has counted 211 "press freedom violations" since the start of the George Floyd protests last week, which in some cases have led to riots. The group's records show "33+ arrests, 143 assaults (118 by police, 25 by others), 35 equipment/newsroom damage" as of Tuesday night.

The huge number of infringements on the press is partly a reflection of the sheer scope of the unrest, but it also an indication of something sinister at work. Many of the affected journalists have said they felt targeted; in some instances video has clearly suggested that they were.

Some commentators have linked the widespread incidents to a wider climate of hostility against the media.

"In every case that we are aware of, there are strong indications that officers knew the journalist was a member of the press," the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press stated in a letter to Minnesota authorities on Tuesday.

"Any targeting of reporters for doing their jobs -- keeping the public informed during an extraordinary period of civil unrest -- is beyond the pale in a free society," the Reporters Committee said in a letter co-signed by 115 news outlets and other advocacy groups. CNN was one of the signatories.

This was the largest coalition to sign such a letter in the Reporters Committee's 50-year history. "We'll be sending similar letters to other jurisdictions around the country," a spokeswoman said.

  • The letter called for protocols "to protect reporters and ensure the public is informed." "Instruct your officers and staff that the arrest or physical attack of a journalist who is compliant with reasonable police orders is a clearly established First Amendment violation."
  • "Take swift action to discipline any officer who is found to have arrested or assaulted a journalist engaged in newsgathering."
  • "Inform your officers that they themselves could be subject to legal liability for violating these rights."
  • "Ensure that crowd control tactics are appropriate and proportional, and are designed to prevent collateral harm to journalists covering the protests.
  • "Continue to exempt members of the news media from mobility restrictions, including, and especially, curfews."
  • "Release all information about arrests of or physical interactions with the press to the public to allow it to evaluate the legitimacy of police conduct."

The list may be a blueprint of sorts for other states, other police departments, and other crises. New accounts of reporters being restricted and manhandled poured in on Tuesday night as curfews were enforced in major cities.

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