U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Accountability two years later: Tracking journalists' lawsuits

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Published On
May 31, 2022
A graph showing a snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far this year.

A snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far this year.

— U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter direct in your inbox by signing up here.

Accountability following 2020 Black Lives Matter protests

In late May 2020, as the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin went viral, so, too, did protests spread across the U.S. In the year that followed, the Tracker recorded the most press freedom violations of journalists covering demonstrations than it had ever before seen — 617 assaults and 156 detainments or arrests of members of the press.

Two years later, at least 50 journalists are plaintiffs in 29 lawsuits alleging law enforcement violated their First Amendment rights during those Black Lives Matter and social justice protests.

Senior reporter Stephanie Sugars, who tracks the litigation for the Tracker, wrote how so far, only two of the lawsuits with public settlements have included policy reforms to protect the rights of members of the press.

Also recently added to the Tracker

  • Subpoena — Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request from investigative reporter Jason Leopold, Guardian reporter Stephanie Kirchgaessner found out this month that her phone records were secretly subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2021 as part of a leak investigation initiated during the Trump administration.

    Kirchgaessner told the Tracker that news of the subpoena caught her off-guard, and she found it highly worrisome. “This is a tool that is only supposed to be used in extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

  • Subpoena — Independent journalist Hanna Merzbach was served a subpoena on May 5 in a coffee shop — possibly the most relatable place for a journalist to be working from — seeking her testimony in an ongoing local criminal case. The subpoena, from the Bend, Oregon, district attorney, was dropped the next day, which Merzbach credited to the work of the local chapter of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

    RCFP is a Tracker partner and advisory board member, and this month rolled out a 4-part newsletter series exploring 2021 Tracker data.

We’ve documented seven subpoenas of journalists so far this year.

  • Equipment Seizure — While on an official trip to Norway with a U.S. Department of Defense deputy on May 22, Reuters foreign correspondent Idrees Ali had his cellphone confiscated. Ali, who has covered the Pentagon since 2015, was singled out as a non-U.S. citizen under a new Air Force rule. The next day, the Air Force rescinded the rule and apologized to the reporter.

This is the second equipment seizure we’ve documented so far this year.

What’s Ahead

Interns: Today is the last day for recent or soon-to-be-graduates to apply for our fall reporting internship at the Tracker.

AMA: The Tracker has a session at this year’s RightsCon (“5 years of documenting attacks on the U.S. press: Trends, impact and applications”) and conference-goers also get one hour on June 6 to Ask Me Anything. You have until the end of this week to register.

I’ll see you next month.

Kirstin McCudden
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker