Editor & Publisher
June 29, 2007
" ... agents blocked their microphones and cameras and used excessive force against the journalists by shoving them through a security gate, punching, kicking, and hitting them with batons, and utilizing pepper spray. ... "
NEW YORK A judge threw out a lawsuit filed by a group of journalists who sued the FBI recently, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported on June 27.
Chief U.S. District Judge Jose Antonio Fuste of San Juan, Puerto Rico, presided over the suit, which the journalists filed after being attacked by FBI agents while covering an FBI search of an apartment in San Juan. Fuste granted the FBI’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that state officials can be granted immunity from “the burden of standing trial or facing other onerous aspects of litigation.”
The journalists were represented by William Ramirez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico; Ramirez told the RCFP that he “disagreed with the judge’s recitation of the facts.”
The journalists claim that during an FBI execution of a search warrant on a San Juan apartment in February 2006, their First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights were violated after agents blocked their microphones and cameras and used excessive force against the journalists by shoving them through a security gate, punching, kicking, and hitting them with batons, and utilizing pepper spray.
The FBI disagreed with this account, saying that some of the journalists were injured when they attempted to squeeze through a narrow gate. It was noted by Fuste that the FBI agents were also facing an angry public, which had gathered outside the gates of the apartment to observe and protest the raid. The group soon began shouting and throwing rocks at the FBI vehicles. During the tumult, the journalists were waved through the residential gates by a member of the complex; the FBI agents responded by ordering the journalists back out and using pepper spray to enforce the order.
Fuste ruled that the agents were justified in their use of force and pepper spray because it was reasonable to assume that such actions were preventative measures against an escalation of violence by the gathering mob. The judge also ruled that First Amendment rights had not been violated because there was no legal precedent in which the obstruction of microphones and cameras was ruled a First Amendment violation.
Ramirez countered this by telling the RCFP that the crowd’s response of throwing rocks at the FBI vehicles was a reaction to seeing the reporters being attacked, and that “any unjustified impediment to the press doing its job” is a First Amendment violation. He added that an appeal to the ruling is planned.