'Know Your Rights' guide published for journalists covering protests in the United States

by Flavie Fuentes
Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:40 GMT

Protesters rally at the White House against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 31, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Image Caption and Rights Information

TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, connects high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change with the best law firms and corporate legal teams to provide them with free legal assistance.

2020 was a crucial year in the United States; presidential elections took place amidst harsh social tensions across the country. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked outrage, led to widespread demonstrations and put the Black Lives Matter at the forefront of the national stage.

Journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests were being attacked in an unprecedented manner by both police and activists. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database of press freedom incidents in the U.S., registered more than 400 claims of assaults on journalists between May 25th and June 12th, 2020, and a total of 274 confirmed cases of assault against journalists in 2020. This figure starkly contrasts with the 34 attacks on media that occurred in 2019.

During the protests that scattered across the country in May and June, journalists were subject to diverse forms of violence and intimidation. For example, Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet in Minneapolis, whereas other journalists were arrested for exercising their profession.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) received queries by journalists about a resource that would summarise their rights during protests under the First Amendment, and other applicable laws.

CPJ reached out to TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, and was quickly put in touch with an international law firm that drafted a concise “Know Your Rights” Guide for journalists covering protests in the U.S. This Guide describes in simple language the protections afforded to journalists during a protest under the First Amendment (e.g. the right to gather news, right to record) and Fourth Amendment (e.g. seizure, search) and any subsequent practical tips. CPJ reported that journalists' main concern was to know what they should do if police ask them to stop recording or take their phone and demand footage from their phone.

This Guide also lays out the legal grounds to arrest a journalist during a protest, as well as any practical tips to avoid facing these charges, and the most common legal avenues used to counter these charges. CPJ was particularly interested in dispersal orders, which are common at protests, and curfew orders, which journalists have been arrested for violating. CPJ wanted to know what kind of information to consider preserving if journalists would like to file a legal claim in the future, and more generally speaking, best practices that the journalists should follow if they are arrested.

Thanks to the quick connection made by TrustLaw and the exceptional resources provided by the law firm, the Guide was produced within a very short timeframe and disseminated by CPJ among its network. This Guide, which will be updated as needed, was described as a “fantastic resource” by Lucy Westcott, CPJ James W. Foley Fellow.

“We hope this guide will constitute a valuable resource for journalists in the U.S. who want to exercise their profession without fearing legal or physical threats, and will, hopefully, strengthen the media ecosystem at large,” said Flavie Fuentes, Legal Manager in North America and the Caribbean at TrustLaw.