Pushing Back Against Attacks on Freedom of the Press at Home

On the morning of Friday, May 29, the nation woke up to a disturbing scene, something many never thought they would witness in America: Omar Jimenez, a black CNN reporter, and his cameraman and producer being arrested by Minneapolis police live on the air. 

The police claimed that the news crew was arrested for refusing to move when asked, but in the video of his arrest, Jimenez was clearly heard telling officers, “Put us back where you want us. We are getting out of your way.”

The crew was later released from custody at the direction of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, who apologized to Jimenez and CNN for the incident. Minnesota State Police claimed in a statement that the team was released “once they were confirmed to be members of the media.” CNN later pushed back against this claim as being wholly inaccurate.

Jimenez is only one of many recent examples of police targeting or arresting journalists covering the unrelenting nationwide protests over police brutality and the tragic and unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

In total, there have been over 300 documented attacks on members of the press by law enforcement since the beginning of the protests less than two weeks ago. As in Jimenez’s case, many of the incidents occurred after the journalists had identified themselves and displayed their press credentials.

Some of the most brazen attacks involved police saying, “I don’t care” after learning that they were pepper-spraying or detaining members of the press. In one instance, police officers in Minneapolis fired tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades on a group of roughly a dozen journalists who were standing apart from protestors. In Las Vegas, two journalists were arrested and charged with “failure to disperse,” a misdemeanor offense, and were released the next day. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been at least 54 arrests of journalists since protests began on May 26.

These incidents can only be described as flagrant attacks on the freedom of the press, an institution of American values enshrined in the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ongoing protests, and the coverage of them by reporters, exemplify the purest form of these constitutional rights. The people are speaking out, peacefully assembling, and petitioning the government for a redress of their grievances.

However, as we’ve seen play out on our Twitter feeds and news broadcasts around the country, too many police officers are doing everything in their power to intimidate, harass, detain and even assault protestors and journalists exercising their rights, whether through the indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray, kettling and other mass arrest maneuvers, or the removal of identifying insignia and badge numbers.

When police consistently try to silence peaceful protestors and quell opposition to their lethal tactics, the free press stands as one of the last defenses against government intrusion on the other freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. 

The clearest example of this was the recent incident involving Buffalo, N.Y. police officers pushing an elderly man to the ground. The disturbing incident was recorded in graphic detail by WBFO, the local NPR affiliate, showing the man falling backward onto the ground and immediately starting to bleed. 

The Buffalo police initially released a statement claiming the man “tripped and fell,” sparking public outrage that led to the suspension of the officers. Given this initial attempt to cover up the officers’ actions, it is worth asking what would have happened if the local news outlet had not documented the scene for millions to view online for themselves.

In this sense, a free press acts as a bulwark against infringements on other freedoms of expression, dutifully watching out for violations of other rights, which makes attacks on reporters even more egregious. 

Having said that, the framing of these violations of press freedom is crucial. Stories of journalists suffering police brutality cannot detract from the stories of the police brutality suffered by African Americans every day, which formed the initial basis for the protests.

The role of the press has come under increased scrutiny during these protests. Media critics have begun to question the journalistic norms of objectivity. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes, “it’s more than acceptable that [reporters] should stand up for civil rights — for press rights, for racial justice, for gender equity and against economic inequality.”

As more and more Americans continue to take to the streets to voice their disaffection with systemic racism and local police departments, it is crucial that reporters and news outlets remain free to document and cover the story without fear of reprisal from law enforcement authorities. Attacks on journalists during these protests must be seen as attacks on and attempts to silence the fight for equality, and in this fight, the press must be an ally.

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