- Published On
- May 25, 2022
- Written by
- Stephanie Sugars from Freedom of the Press Foundation
At least 50 journalists have filed First Amendment lawsuits against law enforcement following their arrests or assaults while covering the nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Only two of the lawsuits with public settlements have included policy reforms to protect the rights of members of the press.
From Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, until former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction on all charges on April 20, 2021, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 617 assaults and 156 detainments or arrests of members of the press. To date, journalists involved in those incidents are now plaintiffs in 29 lawsuits, the latest coming just days before the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
According to the Tracker’s research, 19 lawsuits stemming from violations during the Black Lives Matter protests are still pending; the parties to six of those have reached tentative settlement agreements and may be dismissed by the end of September.
As the Tracker reported in December 2020, the vast majority of lawsuits are settled out of court, offering both parties greater discretion over the conditions and resolving the case more quickly. Whether the settlement consists of monetary damages, policy change or a mixture of both, experts argue that both can hold law enforcement agencies accountable for First Amendment violations.
In February 2022, the ACLU of Minnesota reached a settlement with one of the defendants in its class-action lawsuit that included both policy change and a monetary award: the Minnesota State Patrol agreed to pay $825,000 and to reform department policy to prevent future assaults. The suit continues against the other law enforcement agencies involved in assaulting members of the press.
Of the seven suits stemming from incidents at Black Lives Matter protests that have been fully settled, three did not release the details of the agreement and three resulted in payments; only one consisted of policy changes. In exchange for the plaintiffs waiving any claim for monetary damages, the Omaha Police Department agreed to tighten restrictions on the use of crowd-control munitions and the city agreed to rewrite the two ordinances used to justify the mass arrests.
Though nearly two years have passed since some of the instigating incidents, additional lawsuits continue to be filed.
Documentary photographer Rian Dundon was on assignment in Portland, Oregon, for the Economic Hardship Reporting in July 2020 when he was assaulted by federal officers twice, according to his April 2022 lawsuit. During one of the incidents, Dundon alleges, an agent threw him onto an unexploded gas canister which then exploded, resulting in third-degree burns.
Another photojournalist, Chris Rusanowsky, filed his lawsuit against the Dallas Police Department on May 23, two days before the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. Rusanowsky told the Tracker shortly after the incident that an officer threw him to the ground and arrested him while he was documenting protests on May 30, 2020. The photographer, who was on assignment for ZUMA Press at the time, was held for approximately 26 hours and charged with obstructing a highway or other passageway; the charges were later dropped.
Rusanowsky’s suit names the City of Dallas and Dallas Police Department Sgt. Roger Rudloff, alleging that he was singled out for arrest because he had photographed the officer violently arresting two protesters.
As lawsuits are filed by journalists, the Tracker follows from initial incident to ongoing updates as the litigation makes its way through the courts. Explore the entire Tracker database to read the press freedom violations at the heart of the pending lawsuits detailed above, and other assaults, arrests of journalists at national Black Lives Matter protests following the death of Floyd in 2020.