PEN America, the ACLU, and People Demanding Action Petition Attorney General Lynch for Police Training on First Amendment Protections for Citizen Journalists

NEW YORK—More than 40,000 Americans have joined PEN America, People Demanding Action, and the American Civil Liberties Union in a petition to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for an end to harassment and retaliation against those who document and publicize police violence.

As high-profile allegations of police abuse—especially against people of color—have risen in recent years, witnesses and bystanders have increasingly taken to their camera phones to record and publicize the events and shed light on official narratives. PEN America, a leading free expression advocacy group driven by some of the country’s most esteemed writers, has documented a parallel pattern of retaliation against those who film the police. The individuals who shared video of the use of lethal force by police against Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner have all reported retaliation by police, in some cases lasting for months after disseminating video of the incidents. In addition to arrest, witnesses to alleged police misconduct have faced ongoing harassment, job loss, and even physical abuse after making their videos public.  While in some cases those targeted had outstanding infractions on their records, the timing and intensity of police reprisals strongly suggest a link to the videos they shot and shared depicting police violence.

“We call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate these cases and enforce DOJ guidance on First Amendment rights to prevent police harassment and retaliation,” the petition reads, “and to train police officers on the right of individuals to document police engaged in their duties.” 

Renowned authors Gina Apostol (The Gun Dealer’s Daughter), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Alexander Chee (Queen of the Night), Teju Cole (Open City), Philip Gourevitch (We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families), Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise), Brendan Kiely (All American Boys), and Larissa MacFarquhar (Strangers Drowning) are among those who have signed the petition to demand greater attention to instances of harassment against citizens who have exercised their First Amendment rights.

“Video taken by witnesses that documents alleged police misconduct has provided crucial evidence to shape the public, police, and policymakers’ understanding of how sometimes routine encounters with police can end in violence and death,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “If a citizen sees a tense situation unfold and exercises their First Amendment right to document it, they should not have to fear being targeted for reprisals by police. In an age of smartphones and social media, the Justice Department should get ahead of this worrying trend and make sure police know that retaliation against acts of journalism won’t be tolerated.” 


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression at home and abroad. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at

The ACLU has worked for almost 100 years to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

People Demanding Action (PDAction) is a mass-based political movement and network rebuilding a populist coalition to protect and preserve the dreams of our children and the coming generations. Our mission is to help foment and evolve a grassroots movement to rebuild American democracy, freedom, peace and justice.

Sarah Edkins, PEN America: [email protected], +1.646.779.4830
Alexandra Ringe, ACLU: [email protected], +1.212.549.2582