Whistleblower reveals government monitoring journalists and activists due to their work

Peaceful Assembly

Immigration-related protests

The government's handling of migrants at the U.S. Mexico border and President Trump’s declaration of emergency powers to build a wall was met with resistance by members of Congress and people across the country. Hundreds of protests were held in cities around the country over the president’s treatment of migrants at the border and to discourage his administration from pursuing the national emergency to secure funding for the wall. In Seattle, for example, people gathered in Volunteer Park for a protest and vigil that was attended by the state’s governor and other elected officials. Closer to the border, teachers from the U.S. and Mexico joined together in El Paso in a show of solidarity with families being held in detention centers on the border. “In order to change this and to do what’s right by our children, we all have to have one collective voice,” Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, said. 

On 15th March 2019, the president issued his first veto following Congress’ bipartisan legislation that rejected his declaration of national emergency for border wall funding. "When that power is delegated to the executive or judicial branches, representatives become elected bystanders and ‘We the People’ no longer have a voice," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said.

Racial justice related protest

On 4th March 2019, police arrested over 80 people, including two journalists, and detained another reporter during a protest in Sacramento over a district attorney’s decision not to file charges against the officers who killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American man in his grandmother’s yard. Among those detained were reporters Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee, Scott Rodd of The Sacramento Business Journal, and student journalist William Coburn of The State Hornet. Hector Amezcua, a photojournalist for the Sacramento Bee, was also shoved to the ground by officers, damaging his equipment and impeding his ability to live-broadcast the protest. Prosecutors later released everyone who had been arrested at the protest without filing charges. Over 100 people had gathered in a grocery store parking lot to protest the decision not to bring criminal charges against the officers who killed Stephon Clark last March.

Labour rights-related protests

On 13th February 2019, hundreds of members of the American Federation of Government Employees union stood quietly for 35 minutes in a Senate office building in Washington, DC as part of a silent protest to demand Congress fund the government and end the country’s longest government shutdown. The 35 minutes, according to AFGE National President David Cox, represented the 35 days that the government was shut down between December 2018 and January 2019 and employees did not receive their salary. Cox later said, “If they do it again, (I) make a promise all 100 senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives, you will see us in your office everyday – 7 days a week!”. Around 800,000 federal workers were impacted by the 35-day government shutdown.

On 28th February 2019, hundreds of Kentucky teachers called in sick as part of a protest over legislation concerning the state's pension fund, forcing six Kentucky school districts to cancel classes. The “sick out” was organised by the group KY 120 United and held on the same day state lawmakers were scheduled to discuss House bill 525, a bill proposing significant changes to the teacher’s pension program. This protest follows one from last year where thousands of teachers and their supporters gathered at the state capitol to protest against a bill that would have affected pensions for newly hired teachers. In Denver, public schools teachers gathered outside the Colorado Capitol on 11th February as part of a protest to seek better pay. Videos of the protest show teachers holding signs and picketing on the sidewalks.

Environmental-related protests

On 15th March 2019, around 1,500 students demonstrated outside of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC as part of an international day of action to protest the failure of government to address the threats posed by climate change. Other protests were held in several cities across the country, often with students walking out of schools to demand politicians take action to combat climate change. Many students carried signs with messages like, "Our planet, our future," and "Don't frack up our Earth." Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old from Denver and one of the organisers of the protest in the U.S., called on everyone to take action. "Adults come fight with us!", she said. The protests were inspired by 15-year-old Swedish activist who began holding solitary demonstrations outside the Swedish parliament last year.

Other protests

On 7th February 2019, people gathered outside the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York to draw attention to the Chinese government’s oppression of the Muslim Uighur community. The demonstration was organised by Yosef Roth, a medical student who is studying at Yeshiva University to become a rabbi. People in the crowd chanted, “End the camp” and “China is a Fascist state.” A few days later, the Islamic Community National View staged another protest to “show solidarity with Uighurs” who are being oppressed in East Turkestan. Nearly one million Uighurs in China have reportedly been held in  so-called re-education camps, according to media reports

On 8th February 2019, hundreds of people gathered inside the Washington state legislature to protest a bill that removes a parents’ right to exempt their children from receiving the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. With many wearing anti-HB 1638 stickers, protesters say the bill denies parents the ability to make health decisions for their children and they questioned the safety standards around vaccines. “Where there is risk, there must be choice, and there is risk with this vaccine as there is with any other medical procedure,” Susie Corgan said. More than 70 people in Washington and Oregon have been reported to be sick with measles in the past few weeks.

On 9th February 2019, hundreds of people littered the Guggenheim Museum in New York City with scraps of paper designed to look like prescriptions as part of a protest against a wealthy family’s involvement in the country’s opioid crisis. Organised by Nan Goldin, a prominent photographer and activist, the protesters want the museum to refuse donations from Sackler family members whose wealth in part comes from the prescription drug OxyContin. Hundreds of cities, counties and states have filed lawsuits against the drug’s manufacture over the harm the drug has caused.

On 14th March 2019, hundreds of students walked out of their schools and marched from the White House to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to demand stricter gun control laws. The students were joined by elected officials who support their cause. "You should be in school, but you cannot be in school, you have to be here," Rep. Ted Deutch, told protesters. "Keep fighting, keep speaking, I am so proud, unbelievably proud to be your partner in this fight," the Florida Congressman added. Student-led protests on gun violence have increased since the 2018 Parkland shooting at a Florida high school left 17 people dead.

On 13th February, a judge ordered the government to stop force-feeding nine men on hunger strike that are being held at a federal immigration detention center in Texas. The men had been force-fed through their nose without permission by staff at the El Paso Processing Center. “This is a win for us,” said Louis Lopez, who is representing two of the men. “They have a First Amendment right to protest.” The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the force-feeding of hunger strikers could be a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Expression

The government has created a secret database to monitor journalists and activists engaged on issues related to migrants at or near the U.S. border with Mexico, according to a 6th March report from NBC News. The Department of Homeland Security had created dossiers on at least 60 individuals, placed alerts on some of their passports, and denied entry to several journalists trying to enter Mexico. This report comes just a month after it was revealed that U.S. customs agents have been questioning and threatening to restrict travel of several journalists at airports and other points of entry due to the issues they cover for their jobs. For example, independent reporter Manuel Rapalo reported: "When coming into Miami, an officer scanned my passport and immediately said, ‘Hmm, I guess we have to pull you aside, Mr. Rapalo," 

Free press advocates have documented many cases, including a Buzzfeed reporter who was stopped for his outlet’s coverage of the president and a freelance photojournalist who covered the migrant story, that indicate a larger trend of harassment that seems to be directly linked to their coverage of the president and migrant stories on the border. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated:

"Such actions threaten the freedom of the press as well as the individual journalists’ First Amendment rights. Using the coercive environment of the border to attempt to force journalists to reveal sources or other sensitive information could chill other members of the press who wish to report on subjects they know the U.S. government is interested in. It also raises the prospect of the government using its power to suppress reporting on subjects it would rather the American public didn’t know about — such as the conditions facing migrants at the U.S. border — thus threatening democratic accountability." 

On 8th March 2019, a federal judge ordered Chelsea Manning into custody for refusing to testify as part of an investigation into WikiLeaks, the website to which Manning released information in 2010 about U.S. military action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “In solidarity with many activists facing the odds, I will stand by my principles,” Manning said in the statement posted online. Manning is being held in contempt of court and will remain in detention until she agrees to testify before a grand jury or until the grand jury no longer operates. Manning had been sentenced to 35 years in prison, but that sentence was later commuted by President Obama in 2017.

Attacks on journalists 

On 14th February 2019, Capitol Police officers in Washington, DC reportedly pushed several journalists as they attempted to question members of Congress as they walked through the Capitol. BuzzFeed News Capitol Hill reporter Paul McLeod wrote online that police were circling the senators to prevent reporters from being able to access them, even though the senators were willing to talk. “The senators were just walking in to a vote like normal and the police were doing it to everyone. There was no sign the senators were requesting it.”

On 14th February 2019, independent journalist Zhoie Perez was shot in the leg by a security guard as she live-streamed outside of a high school in Los Angeles. Perez says she was filming a security guard who was holding a gun and that the guard threatened to shoot her if she moved. According to free press advocates, “Perez performs “First Amendment audits,” a method of filming law enforcement without explaining why to assert one’s constitutional rights and test an officer’s response to those rights.”

On 11th February 2019, a BBC cameraman was attacked while working at a Trump political rally in El Paso, Texas. According to media reports and eyewitness, the man entered an area cordoned off for the media and pushed Rob Skeans as he was filming the rally. The cameraman was not seriously injured. A video of the incident shows the man cursing and fighting before being taken away by security. The assault occurred moments after Trump had been speaking about “fake news” and the media’s misrepresentation of him. The White House Correspondents’ Association issued a statement that called on the president to “make absolutely clear to his supporters that violence against reporters is unacceptable.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra reportedly threatened legal action against reporters who obtained a previously unpublished list of California police officers convicted of breaking the law. Jason Paladino and Robert Lewis, journalists who work with the University of California at Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, obtained the list through a public records request. The list reportedly contains the names of nearly 12,000 police officers convicted of crimes over the past decade. “It’s disheartening and ominous that the highest law enforcement officer in the state is threatening legal action over something the First Amendment makes clear can’t give rise to criminal action against a reporter,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

Restrictive legislation 

On 2nd March 2019, the president announced that he would be soon signing an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.” The announcement was made while delivering remarks at a political event near Washington, DC but no specifics about the order were provided. Free speech advocates and educators were critical of the order. A letter from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) says, “Given the important role of colleges and universities in debate, dissent, and the free exchange of ideas, the AAUP strongly supports freedom of expression on campus and the rights of faculty and students to invite speakers of their choosing.”

Lawmakers in North Dakota are considering a bill to restrict access to records like those that shed light on police abuses against activists involved in demonstrations against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. The bill comes after media and activists uncovered evidence through the North Dakota Open Records Act that exposed police surveillance and coordination with corporate private security forces during demonstrations against the Dakota Access pipeline project. The legislation would change the law to prevent access of public records involving “security planning, mitigation, or threats” pertaining to critical infrastructure facilities. Specifically forbidding the release of any “records,” “information,” “photographs,” “videos,” and “communications” pertaining to the “security of any public facility” or any “privately owned or leased critical infrastructure.” About 800 people face charges related to protesting the pipeline between 2016 and 2017.

On 6th February 2019, the Senate passed a series of bills packaged together that encourages states to curb boycotts against Israel. Along with funding for the Israeli military, the bills included in the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act would make it illegal under federal statute to support the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel and would grant federal protection to the states that have already passed similar laws. It now goes to the House where it is likely to broken into separate bills.

Police say a sixth grader in Florida is facing charges for creating a disturbance after he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance on 4th February. The 11-year-old allegedly told his substitute teacher the flag is "racist" and that he would not participate. After a short argument, the teacher called for school officials to intervene. The student was arrested, according to authorities, for refusing to leave the classroom and causing a disturbance. The boy’s mother said, “If [the teacher] felt like there was an issue with my son not standing for the flag, she should’ve resolved that in a way different manner than she did.” Students are not required to recite the pledge under Florida law.

Association

On 11th March 2019, five teachers filed a lawsuit alleging their First Amendment rights, including freedom of association, are being violated by the forced collection of union dues. The case is a federal class-action lawsuit brought by the Freedom Foundation against the California Teachers Association and says that “Unions are unjustly enriched and benefit themselves at the expense of plaintiffs [teachers] by retaining the dues over the objections and without the consent of the plaintiffs [teachers].” The Supreme Court ruled last year that public-sector workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues as a condition of employment without consent.