Felony Rioting Charges Against Journalists Threaten Free Press Coverage

Posted on June 19, 2017

UPDATE (6/19/17): In their continuing coverage of detained Inauguration Day protesters and journalists covering them, Al Jazeera reports that two journalists swept up in a mass arrest by police in Washington DC remain charged (along with the protesters) with several counts of felony rioting. Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantu, who were both covering the DC protests, elements of which engaged in vandalism and violence, were contained by MPD officers in one block of the demonstration area along with over 200 other individuals and summarily arrested. The two journalists still face charges which total a potential 70 to 80 years in prison in spite of the fact that Wood’s reporting consists of a live video stream which appears to show him not engaging in unlawful behavior, and the fact that Cantu is not named in any of the indictments by DC prosecutors against the arrested individuals. 

Civil liberties groups have also expressed alarm at the aggressive, First Amendment speech-chilling tactics of MPD officers. One lawyer with the ACLU condemned the department for arresting and charging a number of protesters purely for being in close proximity to unlawful rioters. These and other allegations of breaching police protocol by law enforcement officials are corroborated by a report from the DC Mayor’s Office, which contends that officers made numerous arrests without cause, failed to instruct protesters to disperse before making arrests, and deployed riot control weapons simply to break up crowds rather than to combat illegal activity. 

UPDATE (6/1/17): According to new reporting by Al Jazeera, 212 individuals involved in the Inauguration Day protests in Washington DC, certain elements of which became violent and destructive to property, are facing a string of felony charges which, together, would amount to a possible 70 to 80 years of prison time for those convicted. Ordinarily, felony riot charges, which were initially the only charges filed against the 230 arrested protesters, carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but in April the Superior Court of the District of Columbia authorized prosecutors to proceed with additional charges of “urging to riot” and “conspiracy to riot” against 212 of them, bringing the maximum sentence to 80 years. 

Although prosecutions against numerous journalists swept up in the mass arrests were dropped, a few of them remain among the 212 facing the additional felony riot-related charges. Furthermore, protesters facing these charges, and legal aid groups supporting them, claim that law enforcement  isolated participants on a single block, restricted their movement to prevent them from leaving, and arrested all of them. One protester, Olivia Alsip, traveled from Chicago to participate in the demonstration and is now caught up in a costly and drawn-out legal battle, a process which requires her to frequently travel to Washington, to have her charges dismissed or reduced. 

While it is understandable, and even expected, for law enforcement to hold individual violent elements or participants in a demonstration accountable for truly harmful criminal activity, the leveling of numerous, serious charges totaling decades of prison time represents a draconian crackdown on dissent, likely meant as a deterrent to potential future demonstrators. Not only are the possible sentences under consideration unprecedentedly harsh even for those who willfully engaged in violence or destruction; but, combined with police tactics of sweeping up entire blocks of protesters at a time and charging them summarily, they threaten to severely punish peaceful activists for unwittingly associating with rioters purely from their presence at the same event. It is even more alarming that the remaining independent journalists among the 230 arrested individuals have not been released, creating a chilling atmosphere for the free press.

UPDATE (2/6/17): Since the initial felony indictments were announced, charges against several journalists have been dropped. However, according to reporting from The Guardian, two independent journalists still face felony rioting charges. 

According to Pen America’s Suzanne Nossel, charging journalists with associating with the activities of those whom they are covering is unprecedented in American history. Such a practice of regarding journalists as accomplices to the people they report on, if it proliferates, would mark troubling erosion of American press freedom.

For the full story, read the New York Times piece on the incident here.