Throughout the past week, the Internet has surged with information and opinions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media activism is at an all-time high, with Instagram stories and Facebook feeds consisting of reposts of how everyone can assist in progressing this movement and elevating black voices. Perhaps you signed petitions, donated to a bail fund, or supported a local black-owned business to show your positive support for this historical movement. One thing you have undoubtedly done is rely on news sources as a valuable source of information regarding protests across the country.
Media coverage has allowed us to understand how others are taking action during this time, but unfortunately, coverage of protests has led to a drastic amount of violations of the First Amendment. From the detainment of reporters with the proper credentials to President Trump clearing protesters away from the White House, the rights of the press and the right to assemble have been continually violated. It seems that law enforcement has lost its focus on preserving our rights, and has made poor decisions that violate the rights we have guaranteed to us. It is imperative to remember that in times of adversity and activism, our rights become only more important, and that any violation of our human rights is intolerable.
Our Rights Under the First Amendment
If anyone needs a refresher, the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees five freedoms: freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and to petition the government. The most frequented violations in regards to peaceful protests across the country have been to our freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.
Reporters in Minneapolis and Atlanta have experienced arrest and detainment while doing their job of covering peaceful protests in these cities, even though the reporters had the credentials to be doing so. This violates the freedom of the press, as law enforcement is prohibiting reporters from commenting on the movement in a peaceful and constructive way. President Trump and Attorney General William Barr also violated our right to assemble, after ordering police to clear out protesters near the White House. Last-minute curfews across the country in response to late-night protests have also contributed to the amount of assembly violations.
Violations During News Coverage
A protest over the murder of George Floyd on May 29 in Minneapolis led to the arrest of three members of a CNN news crew on the scene. Even though one of the arrested reporters, Omar Jimenez, identified the entire crew as press, the arrest continued, only for the three to be released later the same day. CNN immediately took action to free their reporters and have been active about expressing their opinion on the matter since it occurred. In a recent article published by CNN Business, the news network commented that “when a journalist is arrested at a protest, the freedom and fair gathering of the news is arrested too.” Even though the reporters did not experience charges, the arrest was unnecessary and violated the network’s freedom of the press and to document a protest they felt deserved to be covered.
A similar violation also occurred in Cobb County, Georgia, located outside of Atlanta. On Sunday, May 31, journalist Haisten Willis and photographer Alyssa Pointer were detained while covering protests. A press release describing the incidents explains that Willis was not given the opportunity by law enforcement to present his credentials, and Pointer was still detained after displaying her press badge. Fortunately, both were released after other journalists intervened to assist Pointer, and Willis was able to present his credentials. Numerous journalism organizations in Georgia rallied together to display their condemnation of the incidents and have since communicated with the Atlanta Police Department. Again, the detainment of these members of the press highlights yet another violation of the rights of the press, and the actions taken by law enforcement have been unlawful and unjust.
Trump’s Contributions To Violations
As for violations to the right of assembly, President Trump contributed to this violation by having protesters near the White House clear out during a peaceful protest. On June 1, Trump, along with Attorney General William Barr, ordered Washington D.C. law enforcement to clear protesters out of Lafayette Square, located just north of the White House. What ensued was a surge of smoke grenades and chemical spray administered by police in order to complete Trump and Barr’s order. The protest up to this point had been peaceful, and Trump’s order to result to violence is a violation of the right of assembly.
Trump’s action has been noted by reporters across the web as unjust, as he demanded his First Amendment right to free speech on Twitter, just four days prior to violating the First Amendment right of assembly himself. In a tweet about Twitter fact-checking Trump’s statement on mail-in ballots, he stated that “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” He was quick to call on Twitter for violating a right guaranteed under the First Amendment, but then subsequently took action to violate the First Amendment himself. Nevertheless, Trump’s order to suspend protesters is one of the many unlawful actions taken to prevent protesting across the country, despite the violations that are sure to ensue following these orders.
What Can We Do Now?
Moving forward, it is imperative to recognize the rights one possesses when protesting. If attending a protest, acknowledge the right to assemble peacefully and that there is no legal obligation to leave a protest unless a curfew was imposed with sufficient notice. In terms of free speech at protests, protesters possess the right to display words and phrases on posters and to engage in symbolic speech.
In order to fight for adequate news coverage of the events of this movement, consider donating to the National Association of Black Journalists.
Violations of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment during any time period are intolerable, and this movement is nothing different. In difficult times of protest and activism, our rights only become more important to recognize.