Settlement Spurs Civics Lesson for Law Enforcement
Last month, Los Angeles County reached a $700,000 settlement agreement with a radio journalist who was accosted and arrested by police while attempting to document law enforcement’s response to a local protest. It’s a significant sum that will deter future government hostility against reporters who are simply doing their jobs.
Most critical of all, the settlement includes new training requirements for law enforcement personnel about the media and the First Amendment, as well as policies and laws governing interactions with the press.
We wrote recently about a series of similar incidents across the country in which government officials have misused their authority to punish journalists. This includes an FBI raid of a Florida journalist’s home, a retaliatory raid in Kansas preceding an elderly publisher’s death, and the arrest of a publisher in Alabama for lawfully reporting on leaks from a grand jury about the mishandling of COVID funds.
Even in Washington, D.C., the media is not immune from such abuses. Consider the case of CBS News Correspondent Catherine Herridge, who was ordered by a U.S. district court judge to reveal the identity of confidential sources she used for a series of 2017 stories. She has, laudably, refused to do so, risking imprisonment in the process.
In Herridge’s case – and in many other similar cases – the passage of the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act would be a major step in the right direction, limiting the ability of prosecutors to expose the sources and notes of journalists in federal court. More fundamentally, however, what we need most is better education and constitutional literacy.
That’s why the recent events in Los Angeles County are so important. In that case, LAist journalist Josie Huang briefly filmed sheriff’s deputies arresting a protester when she was ordered to “back up.” Before Huang could respond, she was brutally slammed to the ground and subsequently taken to jail and charged with obstructing a peace officer.
Outcry was swift, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 65 other media organizations quickly mobilizing to demand that charges against Huang be dropped. The district attorney’s office, likely recognizing the unconstitutional actions of the sheriff’s deputies, declined to prosecute. A court later found her factually innocent of the charges.
The resolution in Los Angeles is a good outcome, but it shouldn’t take a crisis to require law enforcement officers to have some semblance of understanding of the First Amendment. With any luck, the Huang incident can serve as a lesson – in civics as much as in consequences.