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Media coalition condemns LA County sheriff’s threat to investigate LA Times reporter

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  1. First Amendment
In a letter to LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, RCFP called his threats “an affront to the First Amendment.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a press conference
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva points to a Los Angeles Times story during a news conference, Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Los Angeles. Villanueva disputed allegations that he orchestrated a coverup of an incident where a deputy knelt on a handcuffed inmate's head last year. Villanueva, who oversees the nation's largest sheriff's department, also indicated that an Los Angeles Times reporter is under criminal investigation after she first reported the incident with the inmate. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 31 news media organizations sent a letter to the Los Angeles County sheriff on Thursday condemning “in the strongest terms” his threat to investigate a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and urging him to take steps to protect the basic rights of reporters.

The media coalition’s letter to Sheriff Alex Villanueva followed a press conference earlier this week during which he displayed the photo of Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian and listed her as one of three subjects of a criminal probe into the disclosure of a video showing a sheriff’s deputy kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate for several minutes. Tchekmedyian had reported on the video and allegations that the sheriff attempted to cover it up.

Villanueva quickly backed off his comments after drawing intense criticism from the Times and press freedom advocates, including the Reporters Committee. In addition to releasing a statement calling the sheriff’s comments “appalling” and “beyond the pale,” Katie Townsend, RCFP’s deputy executive director and legal director, emphasized during an appearance on “The Rachel Maddow Show” that Tchekmedyian’s reporting is constitutionally protected and that “the public should be outraged” by the sheriff’s attempt to silence her coverage.

“Notwithstanding your belated clarification that the Department has ‘no interest in pursuing … criminal charges against any reporters,’” Reporters Committee attorneys wrote in Thursday’s letter to Villanueva, “your explicit threat to pursue a retaliatory investigation of a journalist covering the official conduct of you and the Department is an affront to the First Amendment and a violation of your public trust with the people of Los Angeles.”

This is not the first time the sheriff has used his official powers to retaliate against and intimidate journalists. In 2020, for example, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies violently arrested KPCC reporter Josie Huang and charged her with obstruction, prompting a Reporters Committee-led coalition to call on Villanueva to drop the charges and take steps to prevent the future arrests of journalists. (Prosecutors later declined to press charges.)

“Even where no charges are ultimately brought, the hostile signal sent by these incidents can have a chilling effect on newsgathering in Los Angeles and thus on the flow of information to the public your office serves,” Reporters Committee attorneys stated in Thursday’s letter to the sheriff. “And your rhetoric sharpens, too, the acute physical risks that already face journalists engaged in on-the-ground reporting about law enforcement.”