Federal judge orders Minnesota state troopers to not arrest journalists covering protests

Minnesota State Patrol troopers wearing riot gear and holding wooden batons stand in front of buildings set ablaze during protests and riots on May 29, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

A Minnesota federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring Minnesota state law enforcement from using force against journalists or ordering them to disperse while covering protests. The ruling does not apply to local law enforcement or the National Guard, however. 

Indeed, amid another night of protests in Brooklyn Center, journalists reported being detained and prevented from doing their work.

The decision comes during a week of protests and unrest following the police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and just days before jury deliberations are set to begin in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 killing of George Floyd.

In a 22-page order, Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright cited examples of police treatment of the press over the past week, including police orders specifically directed to members of the press to vacate protest areas, and incidents of journalists being pepper sprayed, physically grabbed, or hit by projectiles.

The motion seeking the order was filed by several members of the press, including lead plaintiff Jared Goyette, a reporter who said in court filings that state troopers had fired projectiles at a group of journalists covering protests in Brooklyn Center. 

The Court also saw a photograph of the injuries to Star Tribune photojournalist Mark Vancleave, who suffered a broken finger after being hit by a projectile while covering protests. “It could be six weeks before I’m able to pick up a camera again,” Vancleave wrote in a social media post.

Wright said the evidence showed law enforcement’s “repeated conduct in contravention of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” further suggesting that police actions “were motivated at least in part by the press’s engagement in constitutionally protected activity.”

“If the press cannot document these ongoing events of public importance, Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights will be irreparably harmed,” Wright ruled.

“In these moments, reporters really serve as surrogates for the public, so it’s all that more important they have the access they need to be able to cover such important events,” said attorney Isabella Nascimento with the ACLU of Minnesota, who represented the plaintiffs. “We were seeing some really abhorrent conduct that was clearly meant to chill press and discourage meaningful coverage of these events.”

The order bars state law enforcement from arresting, threatening to arrest, using physical force or chemical agents, or seizing equipment from any person whom they know or reasonably should know is a journalist, unless law enforcement has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

Journalists “shall not be required to disperse following the issuance of an order to disperse, and such persons shall not be subject to arrest for not dispersing following the issuance of an order to disperse,” the ruling reads.

The order lasts 14 days, and only covers state law enforcement and those acting under their authority, but does not separately apply to other agencies like the Minneapolis Police Department, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, or the Minnesota National Guard. 

Nascimento said the order signals to other law enforcement agencies that the treatment described in the litigation won’t be tolerated. 

“The next 14 days are a critical time in our community,” said attorney Kevin Riach, who also represented the plaintiffs. “People are going to want to take to the streets and express their views and we’re going to need the media to be there to cover that so their views can be broadcast and communicated, and also to cover the law enforcement response.”

The office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison represented state law enforcement in the case and had filed a brief in opposition to the restraining order. The office did not respond to a request seeking comment following the issuance of the ruling, but in an interview Friday morning, Deputy Chief of Staff John Stiles said the office was required by law to represent the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

“We don’t get to pick our clients,” said Stiles. “We’re simply opposing it as the attorneys for our client, which is DPS and the State Patrol, not because Keith Ellison is all for arresting journalists.”

Goyette said the ruling means protecting the rights of the press is something law enforcement will have to consider in their planning of responses to protests, but that reporters will still have to exercise caution.

“It’s a volatile situation and we don’t know what’s going to happen next week,” said Goyette, a freelance reporter who has published in the Reformer. He said that there are deeper issues in the relationship between the police and the press that go beyond what can be resolved with the restraining order. 

The court’s order is just the latest development in an ongoing class action lawsuit on behalf of journalists who allege they were targeted by law enforcement during demonstrations following Floyd’s Memorial Day killing. In a separate lawsuit, freelance journalist Linda Tirado is seeking damages after being permanently blinded in her left eye by a police projectile.

The Minnesota State Patrol did not respond to a request seeking comment.