ISP and Abrams Institute Call for Protections for Protestors and the Press
The recent violence perpetrated against protesters seeking racial justice and against reporters covering these democratic protests is antithetical to the Constitution’s guarantees of free press, speech, petition, and assembly.
Protesters have taken to the streets out of frustration with years of racist law enforcement practices. In response, the Trump Administration and state and local governments across the country have repeatedly trampled on the First Amendment rights of both protesters and members of the press. Instead of seeking to de-escalate tensions, the President has urged governors to deploy the National Guard to “dominate” the protesters, and threatened to send troops into American cities.
Police departments in many different parts of the country have countered peaceful protests with excessive violence, ranging from tear gas to war-like helicopter stunts, from steering SUVs into protesters to ramming and beating protesters with batons. The Trump Administration has approved and encouraged this despicable use of force; it relied on similar methods to attack peaceful protesters in order to orchestrate a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Evidence shows that law enforcement agencies are specifically targeting journalists for violence and arrest. Incidents of police attacks on reporters covering the protests mount each day, including the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his team live on air in Minneapolis, and the police shooting of Kaitlin Rust, a WAVE 3 News reporter in Louisville, KY, with rubber bullets. Meanwhile, the President of the United States has declared the press the enemy of the people, and encouraged harassment and even violence toward the press. He has engaged in a pattern of gaslighting, lies and propaganda more appropriate to an authoritarian state than to a republic of free people.
Protesters rely heavily on technology and social media platforms to organize peaceful demonstrations and avoid harm. In addition to the constitutional obligations of government, therefore, privately-owned social media platforms must also live up to their civic responsibilities as powerful mediums of communication in a democratic society. Social media platforms should reform their current business practices, including their use of algorithms, their methods of targeted advertising, and their moderation systems. All too often these practices reward extremism, conspiracy theories, and racial division. All too often they amplify incitement to violence and exacerbate polarization. And all too often they allow prominent and powerful people, simply because they are prominent and powerful, to bully others, act with impunity, and become a law unto themselves. Finally, social media companies have a duty to protect the privacy rights of protesters and not allow themselves to be used by law enforcement to track and harass people who are lawfully exercising their constitutional rights of speech, petition, and assembly.
These protests take place during a COVID-19 pandemic that has hit communities of color the hardest. In the emerging economic disaster, people of color were among the first to lose their income and the last to receive aid. Following the killing of an African American man, George Floyd, by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, many Americans—of all races—had had enough. These inequalities evidence deep structural problems in American society and deep pathologies in our system of law enforcement.
Our American system of government protects the right of the public to call attention to such injustices and demand public accountability. And it protects the right of the press to cover these demonstrations, as well as the government’s responses to them. The Constitution includes the rights of speech, assembly, and petition because public participation is the first step in curing whatever ails American democracy. It protects freedom of the press because without a free press, citizens cannot fairly assess the country’s problems and government officials would escape accountability for their actions.
By suppressing peaceful protest and attacking members of the press, the President, government officials, and law enforcement agencies subvert the First Amendment and undermine our democratic system of government.
To guarantee our constitutional rights, governments must take the following actions:
- Halt all police violence directed toward peaceful protesters, and respect the rights of petition and assembly.
- Halt all attacks on members of the press and any actions that unconstitutionally burden journalists’ ability to report on the protests.
- End the militarization of the police, because these shows of force threaten to further chill the exercise of free speech and assembly.
- Disclose law enforcement agencies’ policies for policing protests, as well as their policies for collecting and using data about protesters.
As academic institutions situated within an American law school, the Information Society Project and the Abrams Institute reaffirm our responsibility to defend First Amendment rights and advance justice and equality for all.
For more information, contact Francesca Procaccini, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Nikolas Guggenberger, email@example.com. This statement does not purport to express the institutional views of Yale University or Yale Law School.