Prosecuting journalists who covered Inauguration Day protests endangers press freedom and the First Amendment

Camille Fassett

Reporter

Riot police in Washington, D.C. during the protests of President Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017.

Riot police in Washington, D.C. during the protests of President Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017.

REUTERS/JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN

Two journalists still face charges and potentially decades in prison for covering Inauguration Day protests in Washington D.C. The continued prosecution of Aaron Cantú and Alexei Wood for doing their jobs is outrageous, and the U.S. Attorney should immediately drop its charges against these journalists.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation joins Defending Rights and Dissent and eight other First Amendment protection organizations in signing a letter calling for an end to these journalists’ prosecution, delivered yesterday to the office of U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu.

Cantú, who has written for publications including the Intercept and VICE, and Wood, a professional photojournalist, were swept up in a mass and indiscriminate arrest of over 230 people that included legal observers and other journalists on January 20, 2017. While charges against other journalists have been dropped, Cantú and Wood inexplicably still face charges that include felonies with statutory minimums of decades in prison.

Cantú’s single charge of felony rioting carries a statutory maximum of 10 years, but Wood could face up to 70 years in prison on his additional charges of rioting and property destruction.

The Metropolitan Police Department arrested everyone in the proximity of the protest 30 minutes into the protest march and slapped charges on 200 people, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office seems intent on making an example out of the hundreds of people merely for their presence at a political demonstration. Indiscriminate arrests and mass felony charges always have troubling implications for freedom of expression and political protest, but there are particular concerns for press freedom when journalists are included in arrests.

Wood live-streamed the protest march to his Facebook page. His footage, which is still available online, shows him documenting the march but never participating in chants or destroying property.

A report from the D.C. Office of Police Complaints states that “it seems that proximity to the area where property damage occurred was a primary factor in the arrests.” In other words, the charges Cantú and Wood face criminalize them simply for their presence at a political march in which a few individuals destroyed property.

This is deeply troubling. Journalists have a responsibility to document newsworthy events, regardless of those events’ legality. As yesterday’s letter says, “because of this proximity prosecutors are arguing that journalists are not only guilty of property damage committed at most by a few individuals in a march that journalists sought to cover, but guilty of conspiracy to riot and inciting a riot. Under such a theory, journalism itself is criminalized.”

Journalism functions as a check on the actions of the powerful, and at demonstrations serves to bring accountability to the tactics of law enforcement. Their work bringing information to light is in the public interest, and they must be able to do their jobs uninhibited and without fear of retaliation or prosecution. These charges have the effect of punishing journalists for documenting political protests, and the continued prosecution of Aaron Cantú and Alexei Wood poses a serious and fundamental threat to press freedom.


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