Filmmaker files lawsuit against City of Atlanta following detainment
A documentary filmmaker who was detained in 2022 while filming outside of Atlanta, Georgia, filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and multiple officers on May 16, 2023.
In June 2022, Michael Watchulonis was covering the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests, a grassroots movement against the destruction of forest area to make way for a 85-acre police training facility. While walking through the forest, Watchulonis came upon a group of officers who told him he was trespassing.
The filmmaker, who requested anonymity until his lawsuit was filed, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that when he attempted to leave the area, officers told him he was being detained and proceeded to pressure him to show them his footage or delete it under threat of arrest. Watchulonis repeatedly refused and was released after approximately 90 minutes with a warning not to return.
Gerry Weber, an attorney representing Watchulonis, told the Tracker that the Atlanta Police Department has a history of targeting individuals, including members of the press, for filming officers in public places.
He highlighted the case of Sharif Hassan, who was arrested and his equipment seized while he was covering Black Lives Matter protests in 2020; a lawsuit Weber filed on the photojournalist’s behalf was settled on May 8 when the City of Atlanta agreed to pay him $105,000.
“The training they are utilizing has not instilled in the officers on the ground — and arguably the upper echelon of APD — a culture and understanding that they cannot arrest people for filming,” Weber said.
The lawsuit filed on Watchulonis’ behalf names the City and four officers involved in his detainment, and seeks damages and an injunction that will prevent future arrests of or interference with individuals filming officers.
A documentary filmmaker was detained by Atlanta Police Department officers while filming in a forest southeast of Atlanta, Georgia, on June 15, 2022, according to a news report and an interview with the journalist.
The filmmaker — who has produced work for CNN and Discovery Channel — asked to remain anonymous out of concern of retribution. He told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he had begun working on a documentary about the Defend the Atlanta Forest campaign, a grassroots movement against the destruction of forest area to make way for a 85-acre police training facility.
“On that day in particular I had seen on social media that the police were in the forest cutting trees and looking for protesters so I decided to take my cameras and go down,” the filmmaker said. “The protesters in the forest were all hiding, so I didn’t see any of them that day. I walked through the forest and I came to a clearing and I saw the police down the hill on a dirt road in the forest.”
The filmmaker said that he was standing approximately 50 to 80 yards away from the officers and began filming.
“I was standing right in the middle of the road, I was not hiding, I had my vest on that was clearly marked with large patches, front and back, ‘PRESS’,” he said. “And when they approached me I did not run, I did not do anything other than identify myself as a journalist.”
The officers informed him that he was trespassing and that he needed to leave the area. As he began walking in the direction the officers had indicated, the filmmaker said more officers arrived on an all-terrain vehicle and told him that he was being detained.
The filmmaker told the Tracker he was alarmed by the behavior of the officer who seemed to be a supervisor and who had initially told him he was under arrest for trespassing.
“I have no doubt that he’s done this before and he’s confident that he can intimidate a journalist with impunity,” the journalist said.
After examining his ID for 15 minutes, another officer was called in and took the lead in questioning him, at first about what he was doing in the area and then more extensively about his reporting and what he had filmed.
“Everything seemed to stop at that point,” the filmmaker said.
“The next 30 to 40 minutes was all about, ‘We want to see your footage. Delete your footage. We want to see your footage. You might be going to jail. You’re going to be arrested,’” he said. “They were just continually trying to intimidate me into deleting my footage or showing it to them.”
In footage of the incident, an officer tells the filmmaker his responses could determine his ability to walk away.
“I’m going to ask you to delete all the footage that you have today since it was obtained illegally,” the officer says. “And depending on how the rest of this interview goes, will determine whether or not you’re going to be arrested.”
The filmmaker said he believed the officer to be from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The journalist repeatedly refused to show them or delete the footage, and said he was released after approximately 90 minutes with a warning not to return.
Drago Cepar, an attorney advising the filmmaker, told the Tracker that it is clear the detainment was in retaliation for the journalist exercising his First Amendment rights.
“I think if you detain somebody and tell them they have to delete their footage or else, it’s pretty clear that’s what’s going on,” Cepar said. “I think it’s a pretty egregious situation.”
The APD announced that it would investigate the detainment in December, according to SaportaReport. When emailed for comment, APD’s Public Affairs Office responded with an automated reply that it was operating on holiday on-call capacity, and that it would follow up.