NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · PUERTO RICO · Newsgathering · June 27, 2007
Judge rules against reporters in case against FBI
June 27, 2007 · A judge earlier this month disposed of a case brought by a group of journalists who sued the FBI after being attacked by agents while covering the agency’s search of an apartment in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Chief U.S. District Judge Jose Antonio Fuste in San Juan granted the FBI’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the agents were protected by a qualified immunity that “protects state officials from the burden of standing trial or facing other onerous aspects of litigation.”
William Ramirez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico who represented the journalists, said the judge’s ruling was a surprise.
“We all had the same reaction; it was kind of a collective sigh,” Ramirez said. “We couldn’t believe what the judge was saying.”
The lawsuit stems from incidents that occurred while the journalists were covering the FBI’s execution of a search warrant on an apartment in San Juan in February 2006.
The journalists said their First Amendment rights were violated when agents knocked aside microphones and cameras, and when one agent used his hand to block a video camera, according to Fuste’s June 12 order. They further said the agents used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they used pepper spray, shoved journalists through a security gate, and punched, kicked and hit them with batons.
The raid and attacks prompted a congressional hearing last year.
According to Fuste’s order, the media was outside a security gate for much of the day, and “throughout the day, other members of the public joined the press outside the gates of the apartment to observe and protest the FBI action,” eventually shouting and throwing rocks at FBI vehicles.
As agents packed their vehicles after the search, the reporters were waved through the complex’s pedestrian gate by someone at the apartment, according to the order. The FBI agents responded by ordering the reporters back through the gate and spraying them with pepper spray, the order states.
The journalists said they were also kicked, punched and hit with batons. The FBI disagreed, saying members of the group were injured when they attempted to squeeze through the narrow gate, according to the order.
Ramirez disagreed with the judge’s recitation of the facts. He said the press and members of the public were in separate areas throughout the day. He also said the crowd’s response — throwing rocks toward FBI vehicles as they left — was in response to witnessing the reporters getting attacked.
“Even if [the order] had appraised [the facts] correctly,” Ramirez said, “it’s a dangerous opinion for the press, particularly in Puerto Rico, but I can see how it being a federal decision it can influence another court” elsewhere in the United States.
Fuste said agents were justified in using pepper spray, as well as kicking, punching and hitting reporters with batons, because they could have reasonably believed the force was necessary to quell “any angry mob” and to “prevent the situation from escalating.”
The judge said the reporters’ First Amendment rights were not violated because there has not been another court that has “found a First Amendment violation based on law enforcement agents pushing away a microphone or temporarily seeking to obstruct recording by placing a hand in front of a camera.”
Ramirez did not accept the judge’s reasoning, saying any “unjustified impediment to the press doing its job would be a First Amendment violation.”
“The fact that there is no precedent for that, there’s a logical reason: I don’t believe the FBI has ever attacked the press in the States,” he said.
Ramirez said an appeal is planned.
(Asociacion de Periodistas de Puerto Rico v. Mueller, Media Counsel: William Ramirez, ACLU Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico) — SH