Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:
Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here.
Journalists sue law enforcement, public officials
Senior Reporter Stephanie Sugars manually reviewed Tracker incidents dating back to 2017 to find that 68 journalists and two outlets are plaintiffs in lawsuits against law enforcement, public officials and cities across the nation following their assaults or arrests.
Notably, the majority of those lawsuits — nearly 90% — stem from press freedom violations occurring at protests.
One student journalist, who told us he hesitated filing a suit against law enforcement because he feared retaliation, is now in the final stages of settlement talks with the city of Los Angeles.
“Maybe the more claims and lawsuits [law enforcement] get, the more they’ll start reassessing the way they treat the media,” he said.
For expert discussions around monetary versus policy change settlements and to see what’s expected for pending lawsuits in the year ahead, read: At least 60 journalists have sued police following arrests, assaults at protests.
The Tracker Year in Review
It’s tempting to compare this year against 2020 and conclude that because fewer journalists were arrested and fewer were hit with crowd-control munitions that the state of press freedom in the United States can be ignored. That conclusion would be wrong.
In July, I wrote in this newsletter how by the middle of the year the Tracker team had already documented more press freedom violations in 2021 than we documented in all of 2019. As we close the year, that pace hasn’t slowed.
In fact, if you remove 2020 from the equation, the amount of press freedom violations documented in 2021 outpaces the years before it across several categories:
- More than 140 assaults of journalists in 2021 captured in our Physical Attack category outpaces assaults from 2017-2019, combined;
- The number of journalists reporting equipment damaged outpaces 2017-2019, combined;
- The 57 arrests or detainments documented by the Tracker nearly equals the arrests and detainments documented from 2017-2019, combined.
Other Tracker categories — we monitor across nearly a dozen — deserve closer looks as well.
For the first time in five years of documentation, the number of publicly-known subpoenas or other legal orders has decreased rather than increased. Of course, it’s not unusual to find out about subpoenas much after the fact: In 2021, we published details about just more than 50 subpoenas requesting reporting material or journalistic testimony. Less than half of those were for this year.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice informed The New York Times this summer that the agency secretly obtained phone records of four of the newspaper’s reporters more than a year before, during the Trump administration.
And while we only documented one prior restraint for all of 2021, even one is noteworthy. On Nov. 11, a New York state court ordered The New York Times not to publish information around the group Project Veritas, the first prior restraint for the newspaper since the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago. That prior restraint, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision in 1971, only lasted 15 days. As of this writing, the November appeal by the Times was denied and this latest prior restraint remains in place, confounding press freedom groups.
It was a year
Just six days into January, journalists documented the Capitol riots and were assaulted with tens of thousands of dollars of media equipment damaged. In April, a journalist went on trial after her arrest while reporting from a Black Lives Matter protest. Now in December, one of the most venerated news institutions is under a publishing gag-order. While we did not see the scope of national social justice protests of 2020 — where journalists were arrested or assaulted on average more than once a day — this year has still outpaced the years before it for press freedom violations.
I’ll see you back here in the new year, where we’ll continue to document those aggressions against the press. Until then, be well.
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker