NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · PUERTO RICO · Newsgathering · Sep. 27, 2006
FBI faces lawsuit for attacking journalists
Sep. 27, 2006 · Puerto Rican journalists filed a lawsuit last week against the FBI, saying their rights were violated when FBI agents assaulted more than 20 reporters as they waited outside a private home in anticipation of an FBI raid.
The complaint, filed Sept. 20 by the American Civil Liberties Union, states that federal agents punched reporters, struck them with nightsticks and sprayed them with mace in a deliberate effort to prevent them from filming and reporting on the Feb. 10 raid.
“The press were impeded from doing their job,” said William Ramirez, a lawyer for the ACLU of Puerto Rico. “The FBI may have been doing something illegal during the raid, but now we will never know.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Juan, Puerto Rico, accuses agents of illegally depriving reporters of their First Amendment rights. The lawsuit also alleges that the violent force used against the reporters was a violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
The reporters are asking for a declaration that the agents’ interference with their reporting is unconstitutional, a court order prohibiting the FBI from further interference, and unspecified money damages.
If the FBI wins the case, Ramirez said, it would allow federal or state agents to “turn on the press when they cover something that they don’t want them to cover.”
As citizens of a United States commonwealth, Puerto Ricans are guaranteed the same First Amendment protections guaranteed to citizens of the 50 states.
Journalists in Puerto Rico said their rights are not as respected as reporters in the rest of the United States.
“I could not conceive of a situation where the FBI would attack a New York Times or Washington Post reporter,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said the FBI had become frustrated with the press in Puerto Rico because of their coverage of the alleged illegality of the raid.
“The public has a right to be informed by the press,” Ramirez said.
In February, FBI spokesman Bill Carter said agents were forced to use the pepper spray because the journalists “refused to comply with a lawful order to remove themselves from a crime scene.”
But Ramirez said the reporters were positioned outside the home of political activist Lilian Laboy, well out of the way of investigators conducting the raid.
Laboy was a member of the Breaking the Perimeter Coordination group, a group associated with the Puerto Rico Independence movement. The FBI had raided the homes of several members of the Breaking the Perimeter Coordination while they were at work. The group had assembled in reaction to the killing of independence leader Feliberto Ojeda Rios in a separate FBI raid.
The FBI claimed in a statement that the raids were necessary to prevent “potential terrorist attacks.” But according to news reports, there have been no arrests of the people whose homes were raided.
Ramirez is optimistic about the outcome of the case because news agencies were able to capture the beatings on tape.
“We have video evidence that the press did nothing inappropriate,” Ramirez said.
(Asociacion De Periodistas De Puerto Rico, et. al v. Mueller et. al; Media Counsel: Mark J. Lopez, ACLU, New York; William Ramirez, ACLU of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Nora Vargas-Acosta, San Juan, Puerto Rico) — HS