Press Freedom in Ferguson: Letter to Attorney General Holder
On October 27, 2014, PEN sent the letter below to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Justice Department to open an investigation into violations of freedom of the press during the public demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Included with the letter was a copy of PEN’s report, Press Freedom Under Fire in Ferguson, detailing 52 alleged violations of press freedoms by St. Louis-area police.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530
October 27, 2014
Dear Attorney General Holder,
On behalf of PEN American Center’s 3500 members, including many of the United States’ leading journalists, academics and authors, we write to request that the Department of Justice open an investigation into violations of freedom of the press in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests this summer associated with the killing of Michael Brown.
Today, PEN is releasing a report, Press Freedom Under Fire in Ferguson, documenting 52 alleged violations of press freedom during the protests in Ferguson. The number and nature of reported abuses strongly suggests that some police officers were deliberately trying to prevent the media from documenting the protests and the police response. The many and varied ways in which police interfered with the media’s ability to do their job makes it impossible to dismiss these as isolated acts. At best, they reflect a failure to adequately train the law enforcement officers present in Ferguson on the rights of the press protected by the First Amendment and international human rights law.
On the basis of this report’s findings, PEN calls upon the Justice Department to open an investigation into violations of press freedom in Ferguson. Such an investigation would shed essential light on the factors that drove law enforcement officers in Ferguson to infringe on media freedoms, and on the necessary steps to ensure that in an era of instantaneous transmission, cell phone cameras and citizen journalists, the rights of members of the press and of the public at large are upheld in the context of protests and public assemblies.
The treatment of journalists in Ferguson did not occur in isolation. As detailed in PEN’s report, journalists’ ability to report on public protests in the U.S. has been jeopardized on numerous occasions in recent years, an indication that a nationwide reform effort is required to ensure that police departments fully respect the media’s right to access and document protests. Therefore, the Justice Department’s investigation should draw upon information and insights gleaned from challenges to media freedom in the context of other major public demonstrations, including protests associated with the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The need for better training for police is heightened by the changing nature of journalism in the digital age. New technologies allow everyone to engage in acts of journalism: Citizen journalists can begin recording incidents of police abuse on a camera phone instantly, well before professional media arrive on the scene. Citizen journalists play an increasingly important role in the flow of news to the public, but the emergence of citizen journalists presents new challenges for police departments seeking to uphold press freedoms. New guidelines issued by the Justice Department would assist local police forces in understanding the rights of credentialed journalists and citizen journalists alike.
The issue of press freedom in Ferguson deserves attention not at the expense of, but in addition to, much-needed investigations already underway into civil rights violations by local police in the St. Louis area. The media play a valuable role in documenting abuses and disseminating information about them to the public, thereby supporting citizens’ efforts to demand accountability for violations of constitutional and human rights. Photographs, video footage, and journalists’ reports from the scene in Ferguson played a crucial part in sparking a nationwide debate over the police response to the protests. In addition, the media’s presence at a public protest may act to deter law enforcement officers from violating protestors’ rights.
We have included our report for your review. We look forward to your response.
Suzanne Nossel Peter Godwin
Executive Director President
PEN American Center PEN American Center
Vanita Gupta, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division
U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri
Missouri Attorney General’s Office