Civic space for journalists and protesters shrinking

Peaceful Assembly

Protest-related laws in Los Angeles, California

Balancing public safety and political expression is at the heart of a debate over two bills being considered by the Los Angeles City Council. One of the bills, Access and Safety Rules at All City Facilities, would permit police to arrest any person for trespassing if they violate the “posted rules” at a public facility, such as City Hall, a library or park. On 25th October, the Council decided to delay voting on the measure. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California wrote a letter to the Council urging them to reject the proposed ordinance. 

In addition, a Council committee examined another bill that would prohibit several items at protests, including weapons, pepper spray (and mace), certain signs, glass bottles and balloons. The ordinance is considered vague in its definition of "protest" and therefore could impact citizens' willingness to attend demonstrations. The ordinance is now scheduled for a vote by the full City Council.

Protests in Portland, OR

On 11th October 2017, at least six people were arrested for blocking the gate to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Portland, Oregon as a form of protest. Before arresting the six individuals, police placed the protesters, who had bound themselves together, in hoods and headphones. Portland police claim the measure aimed to "protect protesters" from "sparks" and loud noises from tools used to break through the duct tape/tubes linking protesters' arms together.

Commonwealth of Virginia

A Virginia judge dismissed charges against nine counter protesters arrested for protesting during an 8th July 2017 Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville. Two other protesters pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and were ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.

California State University, Fullerton

On 31st October, at least eight people were arrested outside of the venue where Milo Yiannopoulos was delivering a speech at California State University, Fullerton. At least two of them were arrested after protesters and people attending the speech began to fight. Dozens of protesters stood outside barricades chanting “Black lives matter” and some carried signs that read, “Immigrants in, racists out.” The university police had a strong presence, with helicopters hovering over campus, while officers on horseback monitored the crowd. Eventually, police cleared out a crowd of about 150 people from the area.

Nightly protests in St. Louis, MO

At least ten journalists have been arrested while covering the almost-nightly protests in and around the St Louis area, with multiple reports indicating the use of excessive force by police. The protests are in response to a judge’s finding on 15th September that a former police officer was not guilty of first degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. On 17th September, for example, hundreds of people gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the acquittal of the police officer. According to Jon Ziegler, an independent reporter who was covering the protest, police encircled about a hundred people, including protesters, bystanders and journalists (including Zeigler), and ordered them to get on the ground. Ziegler says police doused the crowd with pepper spray. “I was drenched in spray,” he said. He also reported an officer sprayed him directly in the mouth and other officers assaulted him while he was on the ground, reporting that:

“All of a sudden, I feel a foot or a knee on the back of my head just pushing it into the concrete and grinding it into the concrete.”

After making the arrests, officers smoked cigars and taunted protesters. St Louis Post-Dispatch photojournalist David Carson tweeted a video in which officers can be heard chanting, “Whose Streets? Our Streets,” in mockery of protesters. At least four other journalists, including documentary makers Drew Burbridge and Jennifer Burbridge, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Mike Faulk, and Getty photographer Scott Olson, were also arrested and taken into custody that night.

On 3rd October, at least five journalists, including Ty Bayliss and Jordan Chariton of The Young Turks, Al Neal from People's World, and independent journalists Aminah Ali and Daniel Shular, were arrested while covering the St. Louis demonstrations. Shular’s attorney said he was detained for 18 hours even though he was wearing his press pass and was never told he was under arrest. Despite Bayliss and Chariton displaying their press credentials and telling officers who they were, they were among the protesters “kettled”, or surrounded by police officers and ordered to the ground, before being arrested “for being on the highway”. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and the city’s interim police chief are calling for an independent investigation into the police department’s response to protests.

Inauguration Day protests - Washington DC

The first of over 200 people facing felony riot charges stemming from Inauguration Day protests will appear in court on 15th November 2017. Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist who had his equipment seized by police on 20th January, is among those facing up to 70 years in prison. He like many others arrested that day say they were swept up by officers who arbitrarily arrested people for being nearby while vandalism occurred. On 18th October, a DC court ruled that police body camera footage taken before the arrests and allegedly showing police using excessive force will be permitted in court. Real News reports that the camera footage reveals weapons, including non-lethal stinger grenades and pepper spray, being used against peaceful protesters. Several civil liberties advocates have condemned the arrests and called on the court to dismiss charges for people who did not play a role in the Inauguration Day vandalism. In a letter, they wrote, 

“Both First Amendment jurisprudence and international human rights norms protecting freedom of assembly are clear that one cannot be deprived of their rights to assembly and expression due to the actions of others”. 

Expression

A CNN anchor received a series of death threats by a self-proclaimed white nationalist after making some remarks about President Trump. Anchor Don Lemon contacted the New York Police Department on 25th October to report on multiple social media messages, including ones that read, (..) "can’t wait to stab your neck”. The police have opened an investigation and stated that this threat may be categorised as a hate crime.

On 11th October, President Trump suggested that NBC’s broadcast license should be revoked as punishment for the network's reporting on his national security meetings. "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it,” Trump said. He has made several disparaging comments about the media, often on social media related to topics such as aiding Puerto Rico, the Russia-collusion investigation, and conversations he had with military families. In response to the comments, the National Association of Broadcasters stated that: 

“the founders of our nation set as a cornerstone of our democracy the First Amendment, forever enshrining and protecting freedom of the press. It is contrary to this fundamental right for any government official to threaten the revocation of an FCC license simply because of a disagreement with the reporting of a journalist”. 

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Withdrawing from UNESCO

Reporters Without Borders, ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists have called on the U.S. to reverse its 12th October decision to withdrawal from UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The cultural aid agency, which seeks to coordinate international efforts in education, science and heritage recognition, also serves as the lead UN agency for the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity. In a statement, press rights advocates said the withdrawal represents 

“a serious blow to the work of the international community to strengthen press freedom and the free flow of information globally, and will make the world less safe for journalists and other communicators”.
Denying credentials and entry into U.S.

On 11th September, reporters for the Detroit Free Press were denied press credentials to a concert because the performer objected to a recent editorial piece published in the paper. Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson had written an article on 3rd September criticising Kid Rock and the decision to host the concert at a local Detroit venue. In response to the article, Kid Rock said on social media that the newspaper’s articles were “unfounded attacks”.

A Mexican journalist who was scheduled to speak at an event in Washington DC was denied entry to the U.S. on 10th September. Martin Mendez Pineda was scheduled to participate in the "Press Freedom: Lessons Learned From Around The World" event at the Newseum on 13th September but was not allowed to cross the border into the U.S. Pineda used to work as a reporter for Novedades Acapulco in Guerrero, Mexico, where he received threats after writing a story about local police violence. He tried unsuccessfully to seek asylum in the U.S. earlier this year, and returned to Mexico after developing health concerns from spending three months in a detention centre.

FISA Amendments Act

Legislation to address the controversial parts of the FISA Amendments Act (FISA) has been introduced in Congress. The USA Liberty Act of 2017 changes how information collected under FISA’s Section 702 can be seen, but privacy advocates warn it does not curb the “backdoor searches” that allow U.S intelligence analysts to collect data on law abiding US citizens. These types of searches effectively evade provisions in the law that require a court order for access to such data. Concerns about these questionable searches implicates the privacy rights of millions of US citizens who communicate with friends and colleagues abroad, including human rights activists who rely on secure communications and journalists who interact with confidential sources

Association

On 28th September 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Janus v. American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees to examine whether government employees’ First Amendment rights are being violated by certain union practices. At the center of the suit is a "challenge to the fees paid by public-sector employees who are not members of the union that represents them". In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case stating that even if workers are not required "to pay fees that a union would use for political activity, like union organizing, public-sector employees can be required to pay a fee to cover the costs of contract negotiations". However, the plaintiff Mark Janus has argued that even paying these fees violates his First Amendment rights because these issues related to contract negotiations are inherently political. Therefore, "his fee is going to support speech that is intended to affect the government’s policies, even if he disagrees with it".