By Sharon Bernstein and Peter Szekely
(Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union has accused Minnesota law enforcement of wrongly arresting, injuring and harassing journalists covering unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis police custody.
In a lawsuit, filed on behalf of journalists in U.S. District Court in Minnesota on Wednesday, the ACLU accuses the Minneapolis Police Department and Minnesota State Patrol of shooting journalists in the face with rubber bullets, arresting reporters and photographers without cause, and threatening them at gunpoint.
A Minneapolis police spokesman directed inquiries about the suit to City Attorney Erik Nilsson.
“We will review the allegations and take them seriously,” Nilsson said in an emailed statement. “We continue to support the First Amendment rights of everyone in Minneapolis.”
A Minnesota State Patrol spokesman said the agency could not discuss the specifics of the litigation, but said it can be difficult to distinguish between journalists covering a protest and people who violate curfews or refuse to leave the area.
“While not all of the incidents involve the Minnesota State Patrol, we are reviewing the incidents involving our troopers in an effort to prevent similar incidents in the future,” the spokesman, Bruce Gordon, said in an email.
Although Minnesota Governor Tim Walz apologized for some incidents, the civil liberties advocacy group said harassment continues.
'ASSAULT' ON FREE PRESS
“We are facing a full-scale assault on the First Amendment freedom of the press,” said Brian Hauss, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “We will not let these official abuses go unanswered."
The class-action lawsuit was filed with Minneapolis freelance journalist Jared Goyette as the lead plaintiff.
The suit alleges a Minnesota State Patrol officer "forced WCCO videographer Tom Aviles to the ground and arrested him even though Aviles had identified himself as a member of the press and was carrying a large video camera."
It says CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested during a live broadcast, and Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske and photographer Carolyn Cole were backed against a wall, subjected to tear gas and had projectiles hurled at them.
WCCO, CNN and the Los Angeles Times could not be reached immediately for comment.
The complaint also details two incidents involving Reuters journalists, although the news agency and its employees are not plaintiffs.
A Reuters spokesperson said: “We strongly object to police firing rubber bullets at our crew in Minneapolis and are addressing the situation with the authorities. It was clear that both our reporter and security adviser were members of the press and not a threat to public order. Journalists must be allowed to report the news without fear of harassment or harm."
Minnesota on Wednesday increased to second-degree murder the charge against a fired Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd, and leveled charges against three other sacked officers.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California, and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)