Lawyers for journalist Aaron Cantú filed a motion Friday to dismiss charges stemming from his arrest while covering the Inauguration Day protests on Jan. 20, 2017.
Cantú, who now works for the Santa Fe Reporter, was covering the protests in Washington, D.C., as a freelance journalist. He was one of several protesters, journalists and others who were penned in by police for hours before many of them were arrested.
The motion argued that the indictment violates Cantú’s First Amendment rights as a journalist and that the District of Columbia’s riot laws are unconstitutionally vague as applied in this case.
"First Amendment protection of Mr. Cantú’s newsgathering activity plainly outweighs the government’s law enforcement interests in prosecuting him,” the motion reads.
In addition to violating Cantú’s First Amendment rights, his lawyers argued an indictment would “significantly chill the press.”
“Mr. Cantú’s prosecution not only burdens his First Amendment rights, but it provides a frightening warning to journalists everywhere that they can be prosecuted for their first-hand reporting of events that become volatile,” the motion reads.
The motion claims the prosecution also specifically targeted freelance reporters, “who often lack the institutional support of mainstream news organizations and are counted on to provide coverage of more dangerous and violent situations.”
Cantú was arraigned on eight felony charges on June 9, including inciting to riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot, and five felony charges of destruction of property. His trial was set for Oct. 15, 2018, before Cantú’s lawyer filed his motion to dismiss.
On Feb. 27, 2017, the Reporters Committee sent a letter to then-U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing D. Phillips, in support of Aaron Cantú.
The letter argues Cantú is clearly a journalist and questions why a journalist faces indictment when he appears to have been covering the protest at the time of his arrest.
Cantú is one of eight journalists the Reporters Committee tracked who faced charges after the Inauguration Day protests. Since then, all but Cantú have had their charges dropped or have been acquitted.
Alexei Wood, photojournalist and videographer, is the most recent journalist to have his charges cleared after he was acquitted on all counts by a jury on Dec. 21, 2017. Wood live-streamed the protest on his Facebook page up until his arrest.
In a letter to Jessie K. Liu, the new U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown wrote that “Reporters belong in the field covering the news, not in a courtroom,” and merely “being near a newsworthy event is no crime for anyone, reporters included.”