Freelance photojournalist Joe Orellana received a cease-and-desist letter from the police union in San Diego, California, on April 28, 2023, demanding that he delete tweets about an officer’s testimony during a legislative hearing.
Orellana told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he was on assignment for Left Coast Right Watch, an investigative outlet focused on politics and extremism, covering a push by the San Diego Police Department for smart streetlight cameras and automated license plate readers.
Two tweets in Orellana’s Twitter thread concerned the testimony of San Diego Police Lt. Adam Sharki at a hearing before the city’s Privacy Advisory Board on April 27. Orellana reported that Sharki is on the Brady List, typically compiled by the local prosecutor’s office or police department and containing the names of officers or others who have a history of misconduct that could jeopardize a prosecution.
The following day, San Diego Police Officers Association President Jared Wilson wrote a cease-and-desist letter to Orellana and posted it to the police union’s Twitter, asserting that the claim about Sharki was incorrect and demanding that the tweet be removed.
“You must also refrain from making any further statements that falsely defame or disparage Lt. Sharki,” Wilson wrote. “Failure to comply with this demand will result in legal action against you.”
Orellana told the Tracker that the only interaction he had with the police union before the letter was publicly posted was a comment from the police union on his tweet about Sharki that read, “This is false.” The cease-and-desist letter was sent to him via Twitter direct message less than an hour before it was published on the union’s account.
He contacted the First Amendment Coalition, which on May 4 wrote a letter in support of Orellana and asked the police union to withdraw its cease-and-desist demand.
“Threats of litigation can exert a significant chilling effect on speech protected by the First Amendment,” Coalition Legal Director David Loy wrote. “Regardless of whether correction or retraction of a statement might be appropriate, the First Amendment prohibits claims arising from a statement about a public official unless the plaintiff can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the statement was made with actual knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.”
On May 6, Orellana deleted the tweets at issue and posted corrections, writing that although Sharki had been named by a third-party website, Orellana was unable to view any government documents that could confirm or refute whether the officer was on the Brady List. Later that day, the police union wrote on Twitter that because a correction was entered it considers the issue resolved. Wilson, the union’s president, could not be reached for comment.
Orellana told the Tracker, however, the legal threat did have a chilling effect on his reporting.
“It slowed down my reporting on other matters while I tried to make connections with people who could help, and I avoided being on city property until I issued the retraction,” Orellana said. “If SDPD felt I didn’t take the letter seriously, I worried they might make it harder to do my job.”