A federal judge ruled Friday evening that state law enforcement cannot attack or arrest journalists for covering the current protests. U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright granted the ACLU-MN’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the heads of the state Department of Public Safety, Minnesota State Patrol, and its officers.
The ACLU of Minnesota filed the TRO motion in federal court on Wednesday to stop law enforcement from attacking, harassing, and retaliating against reporters covering the Daunte Wright protests. Wright died on April 11 at the hands of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter during a traffic stop. The police department has called the shooting “accidental.” Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Wright’s family and protesters are calling for murder charges.
Since Wright’s killing, protesters and media have gathered in Brooklyn Center where Wright was killed, and also the Brooklyn Center Police Department precinct. Tensions between law enforcement and community members have boiled over resulting in over 100 arrests made on Friday alone.
Troopers this week shot journalists with rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed them, and arrested or threatened them with arrest, the motion alleges. State troopers also have commanded reporters to leave the area and abandon their reporting, even though curfews in Brooklyn Center and Hennepin County specifically exempted journalists.
Both mainstream media outlets and local, independent journalists have been targeted by the police.
“While covering protests for Daunte Wright, I got maced and shot with a rubber bullet,” wrote local, independent journalist Georgia Fort on Instagram on Thursday. “79 people arrested Tuesday, 24 arrested last night, and several injuries sustained by protestors, media, and volunteers. We should be asking ourselves why is this the response to those objecting Black Death?”
Major media outlets like CNN were not spared from the threat of arrest by officers. “In my 25 years as a reporter, I have never heard police in America actually say ‘journalists will be arrested’ during protests. But that happened in Brooklyn Center last night,” CNN’s Sara Sidner tweeted on Wednesday. She added, “We stayed. The citizens are why we stay.”
In spite of the judge’s order, Sidner and her crew could be seen running from law enforcement again during CNN’s coverage of the Brooklyn Center protests on Friday, even though there was no curfew in place in the city. On Saturday, she encouraged fellow journalists to print out the judge’s order and to keep it with them when covering the protests.
The ACLU issued a a statement on Saturday condemning the continued attacks against journalists. “A federal judge on Friday ordered Minnesota State Patrol not to attack journalists, use chemical agents, seize gear, or otherwise hamper reporting. Yet from media reports, it’s clear that the Minnesota State Patrol needs to do better.
“Last night, they did everything the court ordered them not to, including macing reporters and injuring them. Footage from numerous outlets shows troopers corralling reporters, and forcing them to show identification and submit to photographs of their faces before they could leave.”
In the order, Judge Wright wrote, “In light of the events that have occurred over the last year, demonstrations and protests likely will continue as the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin concludes and an investigation into the death of Daunte Wright continues. If the press cannot document these ongoing events of public importance, Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights will be irreparably harmed,” She added, that, “…Constitutional rights are not diminished during a period of ‘chaotic unrest.’”
The TRO prevents state law enforcement from taking the following actions against anyone they know or should reasonably know is a journalist:
- Arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force — including flash bangs, non-lethal projectiles and riot batons.
- Using chemical agents.
- Seizing recording or photo equipment, or press passes unless someone presents an imminent threat of violence or harm to people or property; or ordering them to stop reporting or covering the protests.
The order also makes it clear that journalists are not required to leave if law enforcement issues a dispersal order.
“The judge found evidence that state law enforcement is attacking and harassing journalists covering the Daunte Wright protests, and there’s danger of this behavior continuing with the upcoming Derek Chauvin verdict,” said ACLU-MN staff attorney Isabella Nascimento. “The troopers’ behavior is clearly intended to discourage journalists from documenting protests that are of great public importance and holding police and our government institutions accountable.
“Although other law enforcement agencies aren’t part of the order,” added Nascimento, “the judge makes it clear that this unconstitutional conduct designed to suppress free speech will not be tolerated, and we hope these other agencies will now willingly choose to change their behavior to conform with the order.”
The filing is a continuation of the lawsuit the ACLU-MN filed last summer with pro bono help from Apollo Law LLC following the police murder of George Floyd when multiple law enforcement agencies used similar tactics.
In response to the TRO, Operation Safety Net, a coalition of MN law enforcement agencies, including the Hennepin County Sherriff’s Department, MN State Patrol, Minneapolis Police Department, and Minnesota Homeland Security, has issued a statement that reads in part:
“Following feedback from media, and in light of a recent temporary restraining order (TRO) filed in federal court, MSP will not photograph journalists or their credentials. However, troopers will continue to check credentials so media will not be detained any longer than is necessary.
“In light of the TRO, the MSP has provided this guidance, and the TRO, to its troopers. MSP has also provided this information to other law enforcement agencies, especially those who are part of the Operation Safety Net unified command:
- MSP is prohibited from enforcing general dispersal orders against press;
- MSP is prohibited from arresting, threatening to arrest, or threatening/using physical force against someone we know or have reason to know is a member of the media unless they are suspected of a separate crime (not simply violating a dispersal order, which doesn’t apply to them);
- MSP is prohibited from using chemical spray against someone we know or have reason to know is a member of the media; MSP is prohibited from seizing equipment from or ordering someone to stop recording or observing who we know or have reason to know is a member of the media;
- MSP is not prohibited from conducting a mass arrest, should that become necessary. If press are present in an area where a mass arrest is being conducted, we may order press to leave that area and may escort them from the area without threatening/using physical force.
MSP has also provided this information to other law enforcement agencies, especially those who are part of the Operation Safety Net unified command.”
—Information provided, in part, by ACLU-MN.