Mayor Wheeler: Protect journalists and the First Amendment

Mayor Wheeler: Protect journalists and the First Amendment

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Christopher Mathias
Christopher Mathias signed this petition

Mayor Wheeler, 

We write to you in your role as Portland Mayor and Police Commissioner. The undersigned are journalists, concerned residents of Portland, and concerned observers from around the country, and around the world.

We ask you to ensure that the Portland Police Bureau ceases assaulting and intimidating reporters

Violence and directed at reporters has escalated over the past several weeks of protests in our city. 

While staff journalists at local outlets have been subject to violence from PPB officers - something you have spoken to - these heavy-handed tactics have also been used on independent reporters, who are often the last ones remaining to record PPB’s tactics in clearing protesters from the downtown area. 

This distinction should not matter, but it is one that PPB have in recent days sought to emphasize.

To name just a few of the serious incidents which have recently occurred in Portland: 

  • In the early hours of June 6, reporter Sergio Olmos says he was roughly shoved by an officer after he became trapped on a sidewalk. The assault took place even though Olmos explained his predicament, warned the officer of his movements, and verbally and visually identified himself as a reporter. Olmos captured the incident on video.
  • On the same date, Robert Evans says officers drew and aimed their weapons at a crew member assisting him, after the crew member attempted to capture the plates of a vehicle whose driver attempted to ram them.
  • In the early hours of June 7, a reporter, Cory Elia says was targeted by a PPB officer who used pepper spray to incapacitate him. Elia was holding up his press pass when the officer walked over to him and used enough pepper spray to block his camera lens, and then left him in the street. Ella captured the incident on his live stream of the event.
  • On the same date, a photographer, Donovan Farley, says he was beaten and pepper sprayed by a PPB officer. Farley had been attempting to come to the aid of a man who was being held under another officer’s knee. This incident was captured on the KATU news helicopter’s feed.
  • Also on June 7th, Evans says that the crew member was arrested by PPB, and was told as they were apprehended that “press passes don’t matter”. Evans has also been shot twice by police using impact weapons, once in the hand which was holding his press pass. Evans has been threatened twice with arrest despite identifying himself as a reporter.
  • Also on June 7, photographer Alex Milan Tracy was taking photographs of police carrying out an arrest, for which he himself was threatened with arrest, despite identifying himself himself as press. Tracy captured this incident on video. Later that evening as police cleared Chapman and Lownsdale Square he was hit in the leg with a green paint round.
  • On June 13th, reporter, Zane Sparling, says a PPB officer shoved into a wall, and he was hit on the heel with a crowd control munition. He identified himself as media, the officer clearing the street said,  “I don’t give a shit”. Sparling captured this incident on video.
  • Also on June 13th, photographer, Beth Nakamura, says she was shoved and clubbed with a baton while holding her press ID and her camera.

We believe that these incidents were all unnecessary. Some were very violent, and  may have caused lasting injuries. And this list is not exhaustive.

On Sunday PPB PIO Tina Jones released a video intended to address “concerns” arising from their “interactions between police and journalists”. 

In that video, she made a distinction between "independent journalists" and "traditional tv and newspaper reporters".

Without directly addressing any of the incidents detailed above, Jones asserted that PPB had served its “media partners” by offering guided media opportunities, such as embedding photographers. 

We believe that it is not PPB’s place to make distinctions between independent and staff reporters, and that distinction has no bearing on the First Amendment rights of journalists. 

It is not PPB’s prerogative to set the terms of the coverage of their use of force in downtown Portland. Journalists are not obliged to partner with them in this.

It is a journalist’s role to open up the decisions of public agencies to public scrutiny, including those made by Portland Police Bureau about the use of force on protesters. 

Indeed, if PPB's use of force is within the bounds of law and process, they should welcome this scrutiny.

Constitutional rights should not be diminished by the tactical decisions of police, nor any prejudices they may have about individual reporters or outlets. 

All of the reporters listed above have been covering protests in recent days. Some have covered protests in the city for a number of years.

It is difficult for us to believe, even had they not all clearly identified themselves, that PPB are not aware that these are journalists. 

If the violence and intimidation on display is not simply a matter of indiscriminate collective punishment, it raises the possibility that PPB is targeting reporters.

Neither is acceptable.

Jones also asserted in her video that reporters are subject to dispersal orders which are made when police have decided that "the area is not safe for anyone". 

Under the circumstances, this is puzzling. While there have been some intemperate interactions between reporters and protesters during the past few weeks, which is a feature of contentious events, the main threat to reporters’ safety, night after night, is coming from PPB officers.

When these officers attack reporters, they are not enhancing their safety.

To be clear, we do not think that anyone deserves to be the subject of indiscriminate police violence, or to have their constitutionally enshrined civil rights violated. 

But when individual journalists are attacked by PPB at protests, there is a broader injury done to the public interest, and to the public’s right to know what is being done in their name.

In a contentious protest about police violence, at a time when police officers' use of force is the central issue in national, and international public debate, police should not have a veto on our coverage of their use of force. 

Violence against reporters may create a chilling effect on coverage and debate about PPB's use of force, at a time when the public is intensely interested in this topic.

As Mayor and Police Commissioner, you must ensure that constitutionally protected activities - recording, filming, photographing, broadcasting, and reporting on protests - are not shut down by PPB.

You must stop Portland Police Bureau assaults on reporters.

If an officer cannot fulfill their sworn duty to the Constitution, they should not be policing protests.

The police are under your supervision as Portland’s elected Mayor and Police Commissioner. Ensuring that they respect press freedom is therefore your responsibility.