WASHINGTON—Reports that journalists covering protests at yesterday’s Senate vote to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act were forced to delete pictures of protesters being removed from the Senate chamber and arrested in the hallway raise serious press freedom concerns, PEN America said today. PEN America joined a coalition of press freedom groups in a letter reminding the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and the Capitol Police of their constitutional obligations to permit photography of police activity in public and with respect to deleting photographs.

As the Senate began a key procedural vote yesterday afternoon to begin debate on Senate Republican’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, protesters in the Senate gallery began chanting “kill the bill, don’t kill us!” and “shame!” at the assembled lawmakers. 

Capitol police reportedly then started removing protesters into the hallway outside the chamber with reporters following and recording the fracas.  According to multiple tweets by journalists at the scene, police directed those reporters not to record the arrests and to delete any photos or videos already taken.  According to eyewitness accounts, the sergeant at arms justified the prohibition and deletion order by calling the arrests a “crime scene.”

“If true, Capitol Police committed a twofer civil liberties violation:  we have an absolute First Amendment right to record police performing their duties in a public place, and law enforcement can’t force you to delete anything that you’ve recorded,” said Gabe Rottman, PEN America’s Washington Director.  “That the Senate violated First and Fourth Amendment rights so brazenly during a debate over a public policy issue of such profound moment makes it all the worse.”

These reports of police interference with reporters covering health care protesters comes about a month after Senate staffers said that reporters would not be allowed to record interviews in Congressional office hallways, before quickly walking that claim back.  It also comes during a period of unprecedented verbal and occasionally physical attacks on the press, not least by President Trump himself, who has repeatedly called critical reporting “fake news,” and labeled the media “the enemy of the people.” 

PEN America released a report on the administration’s attacks on the press during its first 100 days, and submitted a formal ethics complaint to Congress on Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte’s physical assault on Ben Jacobs, a U.S. reporter for The Guardian.