The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit against Minnesota authorities on behalf of journalists whom state and local police were filmed beating, shooting, gassing, and arresting during protests against the police killing of George Floyd.
In an overnight filing, the ACLU claims the city of Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Patrol, and Minneapolis police violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of journalists by preventing them from observing and recording the protests and by unlawfully restricting their movements, respectively. The authorities are also accused of arresting journalists without probable cause, violating their due process rights.
“The power of the people is rooted in the ability of the free press to investigate and report news, especially at a time like this when police have brutally murdered one of our community members,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota. “Police are using violence and threats to undermine that power, and we cannot let that happen.”
Freelance journalist Jared Goyette, who has written for the Washington Post and the Guardian, is the ACLU’s lead plaintiff.
“Journalists aren’t the only victims,” Goyette said in a statement. “Actions like this make protesters, people trying to advocate for change, more vulnerable because journalists provide a witness and police are aware of that. Without journalists there, police or other people in power can feel a sense of impunity that no one will see what’s happening anyway. Everyone needs to know people are watching.”
State and local police officers detained and attacked several reporters in Minneapolis who were attempting to cover the protests. According to the ACLU’s complaint, a police officer drew a weapon on Goyette and FiveThirtyEight reporter Maggie Koerth on Saturday as they stood on a sidewalk observing demonstrators. Goeyette and Koerth identified themselves as “press” multiple times and showed the officer their credentials. The officer told them to “shut up” and did not lower his weapon, the complaint says.
The complaint details numerous other such incidents, in at least one case causing permanent physical injury:
Madeleine Baran, a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, and American Public Media journalist Samara Freemark ran for cover after an officer pointed a weapon at their heads and refused to lower it after they presented their credentials.
Police shot John Minchillo, a veteran photojournalist of the Associated Press, with projectiles on May 29. “This is a protocol [that] I’ve not seen elsewhere,” he tweeted. “No discretion, just total area denial.”
Minnesota State Patrol troopers forced Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske and photographer Carolyn Cole against a wall before firing tear gas and projectiles at them. Cole was wearing a flak jacket labeled “Press” and both displayed credentials. “Hennessy-Fiske shouted ‘Press’ at the officers and waved her notebook at them before they fired,” the complaint says. “They asked the officers where to go but received no answer. When they tried to flee, the officers chased them and fired more less-lethal projectiles at them.”
Police shot Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist, in the face on Saturday, permanently blinding her in one eye.
The same day, police fired on CBS reporter Michael George and his crew. Sound engineer John Marschitz sustaining severe bruising to his arm. “The crew was not standing within 500 feet of any protesters at the time and had their credentials displayed and their cameras out,” the complaint says.
Police attacked MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi and his crew in a “nearly deserted parking lot,” the complaint says. The group identified themselves as reporters. “The officers responded, ‘we don’t care,’ and began firing on the group with less-lethal projectiles,” it says.
Police attacked Reuters TV cameraman Julio-Cesar Chavez, who could be clearly identified as a member of the press, multiple times on Saturday. Firing projectiles, police struck Chavez in the neck, arm, and under his left eye causing severe bruising and bleeding.
Police pepper-sprayed and shot photojournalist Lucas Jackson with projectiles. Police shot CBC senior news correspondent Susan Ormiston in the shoulder with a projectile and in the back with a tear gas canister. “At the time she was shot, she was in [a] parking lot that had been cleared of protesters, and she and her crew were clearly identifiable as media,” the complaint says.
Police fired a flash-bang grenade directly at MSNBC reporter Morgan Chesky and his crew while they were broadcasting live on television and retreating from the parking lot police were attempting to clear.
Various other reporters were doused in chemical agents that cause temporary blindness, shortness of breath, and a fiery sensation on flesh: Vice magazine journalist Michael Adams; KSTP investigative reporter Ryan Raiche, his photographer and producer; Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brook and photographer Anthony Souffle; and USA Today reporter Tyler Davis among them.
“We are facing a full-scale assault on the First Amendment freedom of the press,” Brian Hauss, an ACLU staff attorney, said in a statement. “We will not let these official abuses go unanswered. This is the first of many lawsuits the ACLU intends to file across the country. Law enforcement officers who target journalists will be held accountable.”
Police also misused chemical agents and projectile weapons at various times, directly endangering reporters’ lives, the ACLU said, citing manufacturer warnings. Defense Technology, maker of the 40mm Skat Shell used to disperse chemicals for riot control-purposes, specifically warns: “Do NOT fire directly at personnel, as serious injury or death may result.” Another projectile, the Direct Impact 40mm Extended Range Round, which consists of a plastic body and a foam tip, can cause “serious injury or death,” if fired at a person’s head, neck, or upper torso.
ACLU attorneys also said that police repeatedly and unlawfully detained journalists for being out past curfew at various times, even though members of the news media were specifically exempted by both state and local curfew orders.
Some reporters were placed in handcuffs and arrested, including CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his news crew during a live broadcast, which the complaint calls an unconstitutional act. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz appeared to acknowledge the arrest was a “mistake” in a statement apologizing over the incident on Wednesday, saying: “I am deeply sorry. And you can know that we’ve made other mistakes on this as far as making sure that you have access.”
“The issue here is trust, the community that’s down there that’s terrorized by this, if they see a reporter being arrested, their assumption is something is going to happen that they don’t want to be seen so that is unacceptable,” Walz also said.
Several other reporters were also arrested. Star Tribune reporter Liz Sawyer was arrested while identifying herself as a reporter. According to Sawyer, one cop replied: “We don’t care. We’ll arrest you.”
European Press Photo Agency photojournalist Tannen Maury, photojournalist Craig Lassig, NBC reporter Simon Moya-Smith were also arrested. Other foreign press from Japan and Australia were detained in separate incidents. During one arrest, a police officer reportedly told Kurdish and Japanese journalists, “Your cards are bullshit.”
The ACLU is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the city and state authorities to bar them from further attacks on journalists and a declaration that authorities violated the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. They are also seeking compensation for damages incurred by Goyette as well as other awards the court sees fit to bestow.
The offices of Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey could not be immediately reached for comment.
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