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Student journalists file suit over protest arrests

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  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Oct 22, 2002    

Student journalists file suit over protest arrests

  • Journalists and legal observers filed the first lawsuit related to the mass arrests at the recent World Bank/IMF protests, claiming the government infringed on their constitutional rights.

Four student journalists and three law students sued the federal and local governments Oct. 15 over their arrests Sept. 27 at the World Bank/IMF protests in downtown Washington, D.C., and more lawsuits are planned.

The student journalists are photographers for George Washington University’s student newspaper The Hatchet. The GWU law students were attending the protest as legal observers for the National Lawyers Guild.

Among those named in the suit are the U.S. Attorney General, attorney for the District of Columbia, the National Park Service and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. The departments are accused of infringing on the seven students’ First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Police used a “trap-and-arrest” method to corral, arrest and detain more than 650 individuals Sept. 27. Although many of those arrested were protesters, several dozen journalists, passers-by and observers were swept up in the arrests, according to media reports.

Many of the individuals arrested were kept on buses for hours, then transferred to a police academy gymnasium where they were shackled wrist-to-ankle for as long as 27 hours, denied access to counsel and released after posting “forfeit collateral” from $50 to $100.

GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley, one of the student’s lawyers, said there is “no question that the ‘trap-and-arrest’ policy is unconstitutional,” and added that the “conditions bordered on the medieval . . . while D.C. police officers watched and laughed.”

“The ‘trap-and-arrest’ policy creates an enormous chilling effect on student journalists,” Turley said.

The complaint asks for an injunctive relief of the plaintiff’s charges and for all others likewise charged and reimbursement for their forfeit collateral and for actual and punitive damages. It also demands a requirement for clear and audible warning and opportunity to disperse at future protests.

The students’ lawsuit is the first resulting from the September protests. Turley said he has been approached by a large number of students — many whom were protesters — and is considering adding them to the existing suit or filing a new one. The American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area is also planning a lawsuit based on the arrests, Legal Director Arthur Spitzer said.

Several Independent Media Center journalists also said they are planning to file a lawsuit and are currently investigating their legal options.

While professional journalists, independent media and interns were caught in the arrest sweep, Turley said that, according to his clients, student journalists were consistently discriminated against even after they presented their credentials.

Police are “basically telling these students they cover these stories at their own peril,” Turley said. “There is no constitutional difference between student and professional journalists. Both are protected by the First Amendment.”

The complaint alleges not that the police prohibited the journalists and observers from witnessing the protests but that police failed to warn them that they could be arrested if found in the area.

(Chang v. United States; Media Counsel: Jonathan Turley, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.) AU

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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