We’re continuing to see reports of concerning efforts in Uvalde, Texas, to interfere with media coverage of the aftermath of the school shooting there, with law enforcement and biker groups appearing to take steps to keep photojournalists from documenting funerals, and officers threatening reporters with trespass on public streets and as they try and ask questions of public officials.
Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown addressed the issue in an op-ed that ran in both the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News last week.
“Though there is certainly an element of press safety at play here, this isn’t about the press,” Brown wrote. “It’s ultimately about the right of a community suffering unknowable loss to have information about what took place, how public officials and community members are responding, and what is being discussed to try to prevent it from happening again.”
Concern mounted the week before last after a Chronicle reporter posted a video showing that he was physically surrounded by members of a biker group who appear to be trying to prevent him from walking toward a cemetery gate.
The Chronicle and the Express-News also reported that bikers from several groups “physically obstructed cameras within designated media areas, followed reporters and harassed them as they walked closer toward the ceremonies.” The same story reported that one member of the group Guardians of the Children, who declined to give her name, said the group was “working with the police.”
The executive editor for the Express-News, the closest daily newspaper to Uvalde, told CNN last week that law enforcement has been closing entire public streets around the funerals. She also said she’d been told that bikers were telling family members who wanted to speak to reporters that “you don’t have to talk to them, just move along.”
Additionally, CBS News’s Lilia Luciano reported that a woman who ran into the school to rescue her children, on probation for decade-old charges, received a call from law enforcement who threatened her with obstruction if she spoke to the media. She only shared her story after a judge said she was brave, and that her probation would be shortened.
We’re still gathering the facts here, and, legally, the facts will matter. That said, as Brown wrote in his op-ed, if there is any coordination between law enforcement and the biker groups, that is “unacceptable.”
Further, depending on the nature of any coordination, members of those groups could qualify as state actors, meaning that if they retaliate or harass journalists for their reporting, they could be exposed to legal liability (and there’s some question whether they would have defenses, like qualified immunity, that would be available to police).
And if law enforcement or private individuals acting at their behest are trying to intimidate anyone who wants to speak to the press, there could be First Amendment implications as well.
Ultimately, though, what we’re hearing out of Uvalde suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the news media in documenting an event like the Robb Elementary School shooting and its aftermath.
No journalist should ever invade the privacy of a suffering parent or relative, and this is not an assignment that any reporter would relish. But all indications are the news media has been respectful of the families, while, rightly, seeking to report on the response to the shooting by law enforcement and public officials.
And, if there were ever a public interest in something, it’s allowing the families that want to tell their stories and share their grief with the nation to do so.
The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow Gillian Vernick.