By John Ruch

The City of Atlanta has paid $105,000 to settle a photojournalist’s lawsuit over his 2020 arrest while covering a Downtown protest in a case civil liberties attorneys say fits into a long pattern of constitutional violations.

The City and police officers involved in the arrest made no admission of wrongdoing by settling with Sharif Hassan. But the case is just one of many claims of wrongful arrests of people filming police that is reaching a new peak with the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests, according to Gerry Weber, one of Hassan’s attorneys.

As soon as this month, Weber will file a lawsuit over another journalist’s detention last year at the Atlanta public safety training center site. That’s just one of many complaints alleging police abuse of “Cop City” protesters and journalists covering them, including one apparently unlawful arrest of a driver who filmed police that was touted by the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) second-in-command at a public meeting.

“The repeated settlements in these lawsuits don’t appear to be teaching the City that it can’t do this [and] the officers on the ground that they can’t do this,” Weber said of cases of arrests for filming or photographing police. “And indeed, maybe it’s not even the officers on the ground, given the statements of the deputy police chief.”

Weber said the City, and not just individual police officers, will be named as a defendant in future lawsuits because of the pattern of previous cases and settlements. He said that pattern shows that “despite the training that was mandated by prior settlements, despite the policies that were mandated by prior settlements, this continues to be done, and at the upper echelons of the [police] department, this is in some sense endorsed.”

The City did not immediately respond to a comment request.

The Hassan case dates to the May 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta, part of a nationwide response to the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. Then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared a nighttime curfew that, Hassan’s attorneys noted, did not include any exceptions for news media covering the protests.

Hassan is a professional photographer and photojournalist who covered the 2020 protests. On the night of June 1, 2020, he photographed APD officers arresting someone. Officers immediately stopped him from photographing and arrested him, despite his repeated identification as a journalist. Officers used the curfew – which began about 2 minutes before the incident – as an excuse for Hassan’s arrest, according to his attorneys. The attorneys say other journalists nearby were allowed to continue covering the protest. The attorneys implied Hassan was singled out for photographing a potentially controversial arrest or for being Arab-American.

Hassan alleged that APD officers seized his camera’s memory cards and never returned them. He faced curfew violation charges for over six months, according to his attorneys, before the City finally dropped them amid constitutional rights complaints.

In 2021, Hassan filed a federal lawsuit with legal representation from the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic with a team including two civil rights attorneys: Weber, who has represented clients in previous police-filming cases and is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and Leigh Finlayson. The lawsuit named as defendants the City and several APD officers and jail officials. It alleged the defendants violated Hassan’s constitutional rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The settlement agreement was signed on March 16. The six-figure payment – already made by the City – comes straight from general funds, not an outside insurer, according to Weber.

The City also agreed that its Department of Law, in the event of future curfew orders, “may consider” including exceptions for journalists who “do not intentionally impede or intentionally disrupt law enforcement” and for people who are working or traveling to and from work.

“I brought this lawsuit to hold the City accountable for hastily creating a police state while leaving our rights as journalists as an afterthought,” said Hassan, who now lives in Egypt, in a press release about the settlement. “Clarity and communication during these times [of public discourse] is critical for the safety of citizens, journalists and police officers. Unlawful arrest while being separated and handcuffed through the night is something that should not happen to members of the press. The goal is to ensure that our rights are protected in the future.”

“This resolution sends an important message that First Amendment rights must be protected, including, and especially, during times of political and social upheaval,” said First Amendment Clinic Director Clare Norins in the release. “It is essential that working members of the media be allowed to observe and report on matters of public concern, including after-curfew interactions between civilians and the Atlanta Police Department.”

In the release, Weber noted the significance of citizen filming of police – which is why we all know about Floyd’s murder to begin with. He said that “because citizens now frequently film police brutality, eyes have opened, demonstrations have occurred, and more Americans have begun to understand systemic flaws in law enforcement. Yet, police interference with filming has become far too commonplace. Sharif Hassan was doing his job, as a journalist, and his arrest silenced him. That was the point.”

Finlayson said in the release that “journalists and everyday citizens have a right to film police activities. As a society, we are all better off when such filming occurs, and the truth is recorded. No one should be jailed and put through hell for exercising this sacred constitutional right.”

“The First Amendment is not suspended during protests, even in the face of unrest and uncertainty,” added their joint press release. “In fact, these are the situations in which First Amendment protections are most important.

Lawsuits about unlawful APD arrests of people filming officers go back to a 2009 incident where officers took the phone of a woman who recorded them making an arrest. In 2015, APD was ruled in contempt of court for failing to conduct training that was part of a settlement in that case.

The state and local police response to the Defend the Atlanta Forest protests has generated many free-speech and free-press complaints, including the use of domestic terrorism charges. The City is already facing dozens of First Amendment infringement lawsuit claims stemming from arrests of protesters and journalists in a 2021 Black Lives Matter march and a 2022 Defend the Atlanta Forest march. Those claims involve an allegation that APD engaged in a pattern of counterprotest activity. In one incident, a journalist with Unicorn Riot says he was falsely arrested and his reporter’s notebook seized and never returned.

Editor’s Note: The writer was once represented by Weber in a police-filming lawsuit against the City that is unrelated to the current protests but was part of the 2015 contempt of court ruling.

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