A First Amendment victory in St. Louis

November 15, 2017 04:45

RTDNA tracks press freedom in St. Louis:
Oct. 25: RTDNA calls for review of press freedom in St. Louis 
Oct. 6: The most dangerous place to be a reporter in America: St. Louis
Sept. 29: Twelve and counting…
Sept. 21: RTDNA demands charges against St. Louis reporter be dropped
See more press freedom threats RTDNA is tracking.
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force is praising a federal court ruling ordering police to change their tactics when dealing with protests in St. Louis, where at least ten journalists and dozens of other citizens have been arrested – and some physically assaulted by officers – since mid-September.
 
The injunction, issued by Judge Catherine D. Perry of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, addresses many of the problems pointed out by RTDNA and other press freedom groups since protests erupted following the acquittal of a white former police officer in the shooting death of an African-American man. The lawsuit that led to the injunction was filed by ACLU Missouri.
 
For two months, St. Louis police have been systematically “kettling” protestors and journalists, then declaring unlawful assemblies, then arresting the protestors and journalists for failing to disburse when they have nowhere to go. Some of the protestors and journalists report they were pepper sprayed in the face after being detained, when they could no longer pose any physical threat to officers or others.
 
“Kettling” is a controversial police tactic in which officers surround groups of people and then, often, detain them for disobeying orders to leave, which the surrounded people cannot physically do because officers have them penned into an area.
 
“While Judge Perry’s order does not specifically prohibit ‘kettling,’ it does, among other things, prohibit officers from arbitrarily declaring unlawful assemblies or using chemical agents on people as ‘punishment’ for protesting or for practicing legitimate journalism-related activities at the scenes of protests. That is an unequivocal victory for the reporters, photojournalists and others who’ve been harassed by St. Louis police,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director.

“It’s also an unequivocal win for the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and the press,” he added.
 
Specifically, the injunction states that the city of St. Louis must not:
 
  • Declare an “unlawful assembly” unless there is an imminent threat of violence.
  • Declare an “unlawful assembly” for the purpose of punishing people for exercising their constitutional rights to engage in expressing their First Amendment rights.
  • Use chemical agents against anyone nonviolently expressing their First Amendment right to protest in the city of St. Louis, in the absence of probable cause to make an arrest.  The city must also issue clear and unambiguous warnings that the person is subject to arrest and such chemical agents will be used.
  • Use or threaten to use chemical agents as punishment against anyone nonviolently expressing their First Amendment rights in the city of St. Louis.
  • Issue orders or use chemical agents, whatever the method of deployment, for the purpose of dispersing people in nonviolently expressing their First Amendment right to protest, without issuing loud and clear orders to let people know that dispersal is required, and what the consequences of failing to disperse are including, where applicable, that chemical agents will be used.
“We thank ACLU Missouri for helping preserve peoples’ rights to express their views, and journalists’ rights to do their jobs. We are also grateful that Judge Perry affirmed the First Amendment’s protections,” Shelley said.
 
RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to bridge the divide between responsible journalists and those who don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. It is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for press freedom threats in America. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing pressfreedom@rtdna.org.