Atlanta Police Department officers detain a filmmaker June 15 at the public safety training center site, where he was working on a documentary about tree-sitting protesters, before pressuring him to delete the footage in exchange for going free. The image is from footage he shot of the entire incident, which civil rights attorneys say violated the First Amendment and which APD is now internally investigating.

A journalist who was detained and pressured to delete video by police at Atlanta’s public safety training center site has filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil rights violations that are part of a pattern of retaliation against free speech.

The detention last year of Michael Watchulonis while covering the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests was first revealed by SaportaReport as one of many such complaints about First Amendment violations by Atlanta and state police. He initially wanted to remain anonymous as he considered legal options.

Watchulonis is an Atlanta-based independent filmmaker and producer who has worked for such outlets as CNN and the Discovery Channel and as an executive producer of documentaries and specials for TBS. His 2020 documentary “Cryptopia” won awards at several international film festivals. As it happens, his daughter is also among the plaintiffs suing the City and APD officers for alleged false arrest related to another protest, according to one of his attorneys.

Michael Watchulonis.

Watchulonis previously told SaportaReport that he was detained and interrogated by police for more than 90 minutes on June 15, 2022, at the training center site while working on a film about the tree-sitting protesters. An Atlanta Police Department (APD) officer – apparently Maj. Jeff Cantin – and an unidentified officer named Mike who Watchulonis believes was a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) agent, pressured the filmmaker at length to delete his footage under threat of arrest.

Watchulonis provided SaportaReport of edited and captioned video of the incident, which included the officers claiming the footage was “illegal” and Mike adding, after finally letting him go, “I’m sure our paths will probably cross again down the road.”

The lawsuit alleges the officers also forced Watchulonis to be photographed before leaving.

“The most disturbing part of my detention was being brazenly lied to and threatened by senior APD officers in front of more than a dozen junior officers with body cams recording,” said Watchulonis in a press release. “It was a dark classroom lesson in how to violate a journalist’s rights.”

Watchulonis is represented by Gerry Weber and Drago Cepar, civil rights attorneys who have been involved in previous First Amendment cases alleging that APD has a long history of false arrests intended to retaliate against people filming and photographing them or participating in protests that officers don’t like. In 2015, APD was ruled in contempt of court for not conducting training required under a previous lawsuit settlement. The current lawsuit refers to that pattern as a “custom” supported by the City and APD.

Among Cepar’s other current lawsuits is one with 19 plaintiffs alleging false arrest during downtown protests in 2021 over the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake. Watchulonis’s daughter Siena is among the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, according to Cepar.

“This case is a glaring example of not only the police interference with a constitutional right but also a cautionary tale about the State using its mechanisms of force to engage in viewpoint discrimination by taking sides in a political debate and intimidating political opponents,” said Cepar in the press release. “This type of conduct is at the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to prevent.”

The lawsuit claims officers had no probable cause for the detention, which also violates APD policy. It claims Watchulonis was stopped solely as retaliation for filming or being seen by the officers as supporting the “little forest people,” as Cantin allegedly called them.

Just last week, Weber and other attorneys announced that the City had paid a $105,000 settlement in yet another photojournalist case dating to a 2020 Downtown protest.

“This is the seventh lawsuit my office has filed against APD about interference and arrest of journalists and citizens for filming,” said Weber in the press release about Michael Watchulonis’s lawsuit. “APD is simply not learning the lesson that the right to film is not subject to officer veto and arrest. What is clear too, is that Atlanta city officials are so committed to creating a false narrative about the proposed Atlanta police training center that they will actively interfere with any citizen who questions them.”

Watchulonis’s edited video of his detention and interrogation at the Atlanta public safety training center site in 2022.

The new lawsuit cites yet another controversial recent case at the training center site: the apparently unlawful arrest of a driver who filmed police that was touted by APD’s second-in-command, Assistant Chief Carven Tyus, at a public meeting where he also urged the promotion of a “narrative” that all out-of-state protesters against the training center are domestic terrorists, as SaportaReport first revealed.

Filed May 16, the lawsuit names as defendants the City; APD’s Cantin, Sgt. Jack Bentley and Officer Carlos Thomas; and the still-unidentified officer known only as “Mike.” It alleges they violated Watchulonis’s rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. It seeks a court injunction barring police from arresting or interfering with Watchulonis while he performs legal, public filming, as well as damages to be determined.

The City did not immediately respond to a comment request, and APD declined comment as a matter of policy on pending litigation. APD previously said it had opened an internal investigation into the incident but has not responded to requests for updates on its status. The GBI previously said it would not investigate the incident.

Attempts to crack down on the “Cop City” protests have produced a large number of allegations of free-speech and free-press violations beyond the lawsuits involving Weber and Cepar. They include the use of domestic terrorism charges in cases with no obvious violence, the removal of a skeptical member from an official advisory committee, lawyers attempting to demand internal records of advocacy journalists, Georgia Tech’s removal of a student journalist’s blog post, and felony intimidation charges against activists who posted flyers in Bartow County identifying a Georgia State Patrol officer reportedly involved in the police killing of protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. That killing of Teran – allegedly after the protester shot an officer – is itself a major controversy also involving the GBI, which had refused to identify officers involved.

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 and is cited in the Watchulonis lawsuit.

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