This was the most turbulent period in recent history for members of the press. As protestors took to the streets across the nation in response to the May 26 police killing of George Floyd, journalists covering the protests faced a significant increase in arrests and violence at the hands of local and federal law enforcement.
President Donald Trump, campaigning for reelection, continued his anti-press rhetoric, both on Twitter and in public speeches. The Trump administration and the president's brother, respectively, unsuccessfully attempted to block the publication of two books about the president, and a federal judge found that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons re-imprisoned the president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in retaliation for a planned book.
Although there have been some promising wins in court, recent months have nevertheless been fraught with tension and peril for journalists.
When reporting on protests nationwide this summer, journalists suffered physical attacks in large numbers, often by members of law enforcement. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, police shot photojournalist Linda Tirado in the face with a foam bullet that broke through her protective goggles, leaving her permanently blind in her left eye. In Los Angeles, a police officer shoved photojournalist Barbara Davidson to the ground, causing her to hit her head on a fire hydrant. A 17-year-old journalist covering protests for her high school newspaper in Portland, Oregon, was tear gassed and had flash-bangs thrown at her. Many more journalists have been shoved, beaten, and pepper sprayed, despite wearing press credentials and identifying themselves as members of the press, by law enforcement at the protests.
While the majority of attacks on journalists came from law enforcement, members of the public also physically and verbally assaulted members of the press. A reporter broadcasting live from Times Square in New York during protests was struck and swung at by two individuals. A news crew had its car's windshield smashed at a protest by a member of the public at a protest in Louisville, Kentucky.
Journalists covering the aftermath of protests also faced physical aggression. A photojournalist covering the Philadelphia mayor's tour of an area that had been the site of major protests was punched in the face by a bystander, causing him to lose consciousness. In total, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker tallied 148 physical attacks on journalists from April 1 to September 30, a staggering increase over the past three years, in which the number of physical attacks on the press had ranged from 34 to 49 documented incidents for the entire year. Counting other forms of assaults such as tear gassings, pepper sprayings, and equipment damage, the number of press freedom incidents reported to the Tracker during the racial justice protests totaled more than 856, as of October 8.
Arrests of journalists also increased dramatically during the nationwide protests this summer. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of Oct. 8, it has received reports that at least 118 journalists were arrested during these protests. So far, the Tracker has verified and published reports that at least 67 journalists were arrested between April 1 and September 30, a sharp increase from the nine arrests of journalists that occurred in 2019. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and two other members of his news crew were arrested by Minneapolis police live on-air while delivering a broadcast. More recently, reporter Josie Huang was violently arrested and charged with obstructing a peace officer while reporting on a September 12 protest in Los Angeles. Video of the incident clearly shows Huang identifying herself as a member of the press, wearing press credentials, and attempting to comply with police orders, yet the Los Angeles County Sheriff stated through Twitter that Huang did not identify herself as press and that she "later admitted she did not have proper press credentials on her person." The Sheriff's Department doubled down on its troubling stance in responding to a letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calling for charges against her to be dropped, stating that Huang "became part of the problem by inserting herself too close to the situation" as she reported on the arrest of protesters. Many other reporters were also arrested while covering protests nationwide, from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Dover, Delaware.
President Trump has continued his verbal attacks on the press despite the wave of assaults and arrests of journalists nationwide in recent months, repeatedly recalling the "beautiful sight" of MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi getting hit with a rubber bullet while covering protests. He continues to smear the press via Twitter, calling the "fake news media" the "enemy of the people" and the "real opposition party." He also has accused the news media of partnering with the Democratic Party to spread disinformation.
Troublingly, federal authorities engaged in surveillance of journalists who were covering recent protests. The Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") compiled "intelligence reports" about journalists from The New York Times and the Lawfare blog who had published leaked but unclassified documents about DHS operations in Portland, Oregon, where federal authorities were brought in to respond to protests that lasted much of the summer.
In a troubling ruling, a trial court in Seattle, Washington, initially permitted the Seattle Police Department to force the city's five major news outlets to turn over all of their unpublished photographs and raw video footage taken in a specific four-block radius during a 90-minute period during a protest after the death of George Floyd. The footage was requested to aid law enforcement in identifying suspects who had committed vehicular arson and stolen firearms during the protests. The news media organizations objected to the subpoena, arguing that the materials were protected by the state's shield law, but the trial court judge found the police department's interest in solving the crimes sufficiently compelling and ordered the news outlets to turn over their work product. The Washington Supreme Court issued a stay of the order pending appeal, and the Seattle Police Department ultimately abandoned its effort to obtain the footage and photographs, conceding that they would likely be of little use after so much time had passed.
This summer saw a series of unsuccessful efforts to prevent the publication of various books about President Trump. In June, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to stop John Bolton from publishing a memoir about his time as the president's former national security adviser. Two weeks later, the president's brother unsuccessfully sued his niece, Mary Trump, to stop publication of her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man. And in July, a federal judge ordered the release of the president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, from prison, finding that Cohen had been returned to prison in retaliation for his plan to publish a book about President Trump.
In June, a federal appeals court affirmed a lower court's ruling that the White House could not suspend reporter Brian Karem's press pass for a purported violation of previously unarticulated standards of professionalism. This ruling made clear that White House efforts to arbitrarily expel or suspend journalists without clear standards and advance notice of those standards will not be tolerated by the courts.
In response to nationwide calls for police reform after the death of George Floyd, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that repealed Section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law, a statute that had previously shielded law enforcement misconduct from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL"). This step forward for transparency was almost immediately stymied by lawsuits filed across the state by law enforcement unions seeking to enjoin the release of certain records that had previously been shielded by Section 50-a. So far, both state and federal courts have rejected the unions' requests for injunctions, but these lawsuits are still in their early stages.
At Voice of America (VOA), an international news organization funded with U.S. government funds, a statutory firewall protects the organization's editorial independence. On June 17, the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, violated this firewall by firing top officers and directors, and by refusing to process visa renewals for foreign journalists. Five VOA executives recently filed suit against Pack, asking a court to enforce the firewall once more.