Update: In findings released on March 8, 2023, the Justice Department found that the Louisville Metro Police Department “violated the firmly established qualified right of access for the press to observe government activities” during its response to racial justice protests and recommended that LMPD adopt new policies “to protect the rights of journalists.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 91 media organizations are urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate law enforcement’s treatment of the press as part of the Justice Department’s civil rights probes into the local police departments in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Louisville, Kentucky.
In an April 29 letter to Garland, the media coalition highlighted the dangers journalists in Minneapolis, Louisville and other cities across the country have faced while covering racial justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker confirmed 137 arrests of members of the news media last year, 20 of them in Minneapolis and three in Louisville.
“In many of these cases, contemporaneous recording of the arrest shows that the journalist was indisputably engaged in lawful newsgathering, was compliant with police orders, and was identifiable as a member of the press,” the letter states. “Dozens more reporters were struck by less-lethal weapons, exposed to chemical munitions, or otherwise subjected to unwarranted force.”
Last year, the Reporters Committee sent letters to officials in Minnesota and other jurisdictions denouncing the attacks on the press and urging them to discipline any law enforcement officers who undercut protections for the news media. More recently, the Reporters Committee joined a letter, drafted by media attorney Leita Walker of Ballard Spahr, to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and law enforcement officials expressing concern about the mistreatment of journalists during protests following the fatal police shooting of Duante Wright.
“Each unwarranted attack on efforts to document policing in public undermines a clearly established constitutional right,” the media coalition’s letter to Garland states. “We therefore urge that probes in [Minneapolis, Louisville] and any other jurisdictions examine whether force, arrests, or threat of prosecution have been misused to chill legitimate journalistic work.”
This isn’t the first time the Reporters Committee has called on the Justice Department to investigate unlawful treatment of the press as part of a civil rights inquiry. In 2014, the Reporters Committee and 44 news organizations urged then-Attorney General Eric Holder to examine press freedom violations by local police as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“For all of the reasons we identified at the time,” the letter to Garland states, “protecting the legal rights of journalists is essential to the discharge of the civil rights laws and the preservation of democratic self-rule.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
AP Photo by Andrew Harnik