Amy Goodman, host of the “Democracy Now!” news program and two of her producers filed a federal lawsuit against the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Wednesday, following the journalists’ arrest and mistreatment while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Filed with the Center for Constitutional Rights in a federal court in Minnesota, the lawsuit says authorities violated the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to Goodman, her producers and other journalists when they interfered with their right to gather news.
This is not only a violation of freedom of the press, but a violation of the public’s right to know. “When journalists are arrested, that has a chilling effect on the functioning of a democratic society,” said Goodman, whose show airs on over 750 radio and TV stations across the country. “We shouldn’t have to get a record to put things on the record.”
According to a telephone conference with Goodman, she and her producers, Nicole Salazar and Sharif Abdel Kouddous were arrested despite visibly holding their press passes and equipment and identified themselves as journalist. They were then physically assaulted, detained for a long period and had their cameras, video and other media equipment, as well as their personal belongings, searched and seized.
Goodman was arrested and pushed to the ground after she went to the arrest site and asked officers to release her producers. She said she experienced several weeks of pain and tingling from her left elbow to her thumb as a result of handcuffs that were too tight.
The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against authorities to prevent their interference in the journalistic rights of Goodman and her producers again. It also calls for the court to declare the actions that restricted their work unconstitutional and award compensation and punitive monetary damages, including compensation for medical expenses and lost or damaged property.
Goodman further asserted that the government cannot limit the flow of information in the name of security by acting unwarrantably against journalists who report on ìthe public acts of law enforcementî and speech such as dissent, which is protected by the First Amendment.
Anjana Samant, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the arrest of journalists during the convention was indiscriminate, and possibly even intentional.
“The media are the eyes and ears of the American people – that is why there are laws to protect them,” Samant continued. “Law enforcement and Secret Service agents are not exempt from those laws in their dealings with un-embedded journalists who are documenting peaceful protestors or law enforcement’s use of force and violence against those protestors.”
In the Reporters Without Borders 2009 Press Freedom Index, the United States ranks 20th out of 175 countries on the list, up from its place as 36th, sandwiched between Taiwan and Macedonia.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general, Jean-François Julliard said that though “the Obama effect . . . has enabled the United States to recover 16 places in the index, it is not enough to reassure us.” Reporters Without Borders is a Paris-based NGO that advocates freedom of the press and conducts its index annually.
The Obama administration, which has reaffirmed its commitment to break with the practices of the Bush era, has said it will improve public access to official information and in December a federal shield law which would guarantee protection of sources passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
However, in May 2009 a federal appeals court decision granting the right to publish photos of torture of prisoners by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq was opposed by the government, who cited a threat to military morale and the encouragement of anti-American feeling.
Most recently, a raid on the home of California blogger Jason Chen, who blogs about gadgets and technology at Gizmodo, highlighted gaps in the shield law, which will not cover the rising numbers of bloggers or citizen journalists. Chen was accused of obtaining a prototype iPhone and publishing an exclusive about it, together with photos and videos, without Apple’s agreement.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a journalist and plaintiff in the lawsuit against St. Paul and Minnesota who suffered injuries that he says resulted in long-term numbness in his hands, chest pains for several weeks, and scars on his arms, considers this a fight to exercise the democratic role of the media.
“The protests on the streets outside the convention center are just as important to the democratic process as the official party proceedings inside,” said Kouddous. “Journalists should not have to risk being arrested, brutalized or intimidated by the police in order to do perform their duties, exercise their First Amendment rights and facilitate the rights of others to freedom of speech and assembly.” Officers slammed Kouddous against a wall after he shouted to the officers arresting Salazar that she was a member of the press.
During the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 2008, law enforcement officers used pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades against protesters on September 1st, 2008 on the opening day of the convention. Goodman and her producers were among an estimated 40 to 50 journalists arrested by riot police while covering street protests at the RNC in downtown St. Paul. About 800 demonstrators and bystanders were also arrested.
The response by the police, who said reporters could either use a telephoto lens or embed with the police to avoid possible arrest, limits journalists right to cover matters of public concern by influencing the perspective they provide, said the attorneys.
“The video of my arrest and of Amy’s mobilized an overwhelming public response,” said Nicole Salazar, who was videotaping as officers corralled journalists and bystanders in a parking lot. “The public has both an interest and a right to know how law enforcement officials are acting on their behalf. We should ask ourselves what kind of accountability exists when there is no coverage of police brutality and intimidation.”
The complaint says the officers pushed her to the ground, knocking her video camera from her hands. She was left bloodied with cuts, scratches and bruises on her face after her arrest.
The lawsuit names both cities, their police chiefs, Ramsey County and its sheriff, one identified police officer and other as yet-unidentified officers. The Minneapolis Police Department was one of several agencies providing security during the convention.
Goodman was cited for interference with a peace officer (“If only there was a peace officer present,” she said) and obstruction of the legal process, and Kouddous and Salazar were told they were facing felony riot charges. Kouddous and a Democracy Now! cameraman were also arrested Sept. 4, 2008, along with a number of other journalists, on the final night of the convention. Kouddous was cited that night for unlawful assembly.
All the charges against the journalists and many of the protesters arrested were eventually dropped.