In written testimony submitted on Oct. 23, 2020, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the District of Columbia’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to protect the rights of journalists — and others exercising their First Amendment rights at protests — by clarifying language in proposed police reform legislation.
The legislation under consideration includes measures that address, among other issues, the use of crowd-control munitions and the statutory definition of “rioting.” As the Reporters Committee explained, “The right to document government activity in public has long been protected by the First Amendment. … But the indiscriminate use of riot-control tactics — along with the improper use of criminal charges like unlawful assembly, failure to disperse, or rioting — makes it exceptionally difficult to exercise that right safely.”
One bill under consideration provides that less-lethal or chemical munitions “shall not be used by [the Metropolitan Police Department] to disperse a First Amendment assembly.” But as the Reporters Committee noted, the MPD appears to interpret this language to permit the use of irritants during a protected assembly so long as the officers’ specific intent is not to disperse protected activity. The Reporters Committee urged the Judiciary Committee to amend that language to clarify that the use of crowd-control munitions is prohibited when the effect would be to disrupt protected activity.
The Reporters Committee also highlighted that poorly defined or over-broad criminal charges, like “rioting” and failure to disperse, can have a chilling effect on speech. The proposed Rioting Modernization Amendment Act, while an improvement upon the existing law, is still too vague. The Act “still threatens to impose liability for the uncoordinated actions of third parties,” the Reporters Committee stressed, “which would chill First Amendment activity — including newsgathering and reporting — in the District of Columbia.”
The Reporters Committee’s testimony emphasized that these changes are essential to the safety of journalists covering protests. Since protests against police brutality and systemic racism began over the summer, the number of police attacks on journalists has sharply increased, and more than 800 press freedom violations at protests have been reported just this year.