- A US District Court judge ordered federal agents on Thursday not to target journalists and legal observers of nightly protests in downtown Portland.
- The protests were sparked over George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in late May.
- Testimony from several journalists covering the protests in Portland raised “serious questions” about US Department of Homeland Security and US Marshal Service agents possibly targeting journalists.
- “None of the government’s proffered interests outweigh the public’s interest in accurate and timely information about how law enforcement is treating protesters,” Judge Michael H. Simon said.
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PORTLAND, Ore. – A US District Court judge ordered federal agents on Thursday not to target journalists and legal observers of nightly protests in downtown Portland over George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in late May.
Judge Michael H. Simon said in a temporary restraining order that the principles of open government demand members of the press be allowed to cover law enforcement without retaliation or targeting. The case, brought by journalists, news outlets, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon “tests whether these principles are merely hollow words,” Simon said.
Testimony from several journalists covering the protests in Portland raised “serious questions” about US Department of Homeland Security and US Marshal Service agents possibly targeting journalists.
The order prohibits the agents from arresting journalists who remain in a location even after authorities issue an order to disperse. Journalists and legal observers are still bound by other laws. Simon said federal agents may not arrest, threaten to arrest, or use physical force against people they should reasonably know are members of the news media or legal observers.
“None of the government’s proffered interests outweigh the public’s interest in accurate and timely information about how law enforcement is treating protesters,” Simon said.
The order is scheduled to be in effect for two weeks.
Simon ordered a similar restriction against local police on July 2. The ACLU said treatment of journalists and legal observers improved after that decision, but the conflict escalated when federal agents arrived last week. Several journalists said federal agents pepper-sprayed them at close range, beat them with batons and fired nonlethal munitions at them, even while they were clearly identified as press and not breaking any laws.
Federal authorities had argued the order would give journalists and legal observers “immunity” from dispersal orders and “would be unworkable in light of the split-second judgments that federal law enforcement officers have to make while protecting federal property and themselves during dynamic, chaotic situations.”
But the Portland Police Bureau has been operating under a nearly identical order without complaint, undercutting the federal authorities’ argument, Simon said.
“This order is a victory for the rule of law,” Jann Carson, the interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. “Federal agents from Trump’s Departments of Homeland Security and Justice are terrorizing the community, threatening lives, and relentlessly attacking journalists and legal observers documenting protests. These are the actions of a tyrant, and they have no place anywhere in America.”
Mark J. Ginsberg, an attorney in Portland and legal observer for the ACLU of Oregon who has attended demonstrations in the city, said federal agents were more aggressive than local authorities and gave no warning or instructions.
Although they have also used crowd dispersal tactics like firing tear gas, Portland police have taken more steps to avoid confrontations, warning demonstrators before firing tear gas, and giving instructions on where to move afterward. Federal authorities without “come out, toss a bunch of gas,” without warning, he said.
On a night last week, Ginsberg said, Portland police used a sound-amplifying truck to warn demonstrators they would come out to remove downed fencing from the street, and urged the crowd not to engage with officers.
“They came out, they moved the fence, they went back in. They get credit for once,” Ginsberg said. “Whereas we’re seeing federal officers… just coming out and targeting people.”
Representatives for DHS did not return a request for comment late Thursday.
Thursday’s decision is part of a lawsuit the ACLU and local journalists initially brought against the city government, saying Portland police officers targeted news media and legal observers during protests over Floyd’s killing.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city officials have opposed the federal presence in the city. In a legal filing, the city supported the extension of the restraining order to cover federal authorities.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday he would send “a surge” of federal security to other US cities. Trump and DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf have criticised local leaders in Portland and other cities led by Democrats for failing to contain protesters they say have damaged federal property.
Earlier Thursday, the inspectors general for the US Department of Homeland Security and US Department of Justice also said Thursday they had opened investigations into the presence of federal agents in Portland. Democratic US Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Bennie Thompson, and Carolyn Maloney – who chair the House committees on Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Reform – requested the investigations.