Journalist to sue over police stop during training center protest coverage as free-speech complaints mount
By John Ruch
A journalist who was detained and pressured to delete video by police at Atlanta’s public safety training center site is preparing to sue as complaints mount about officers violating the First Amendment rights of protesters and the press.
Atlanta civil rights attorney Gerry Weber says he and a co-counsel will soon file a lawsuit on behalf of the independent journalist, whose detention last year while covering the “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protests was first revealed by SaportaReport. The journalist, who has asked to remain anonymous for now, filmed much of the incident, where APD and possibly state police pressured him at length to delete his footage in exchange for going free instead of being arrested on an accusation of trespass.
Meanwhile, policing of more protests earlier this month has generated complaints for domestic terrorism charges – including against a National Lawyers Guild (NLG) legal observer – and from another journalist who says she and two protester companions were pulled over by police as harassment.
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 the Atlanta Police Department (APD) engaged in a pattern of counterprotest activity.
The City and the state may now face more lawsuits. Weber noted that the NLG observer’s arrest also has First Amendment implications, as he was filming officers at the time, and retaliatory policing against such activity is illegal. Weber has been involved in several previous lawsuits against APD for arrests of people filming or photographing officers, including a settlement that required more training and accountability. In 2015, APD was ruled in contempt of court for not conducting that training.
Candice Bernd, a Texas-based senior editor and staff reporter at the left-wing nonprofit news site Truthout, is the journalist who alleges a March 10 traffic stop was retaliation for reporting or attending a protest. She said she has covered controversial and repressive policing at such events as a Republican National Convention and a NATO summit but has never seen anything like the current Atlanta policing.
“It really seems like protest itself has been de facto criminalized on the streets,” Bernd said. “…You can’t even engage in First Amendment-protected activity on the street without being absolutely hounded.”
In an article whose headline dubbed Atlanta a “Constitution-free zone,” Bernd recapped several controversial police crackdowns this month related to protesters’ free speech. On March 5, police arrested 23 attendees of a protest-related music festival near the training center site on charges of domestic terrorism. As in previous cases, the arrests followed vandalism and fireworks or firebomb-tossing that may or may not qualify as terrorism under state law, but where the evidence that those later arrested were directly involved is unclear or unknown. In the March 5 incident, many arrestees reportedly were singled out merely for living out of state – a status the APD’s second-in-command previously attempted to equate with terrorism as part of a political “narrative.” International human and free-press rights groups have described a previous round of such terrorism charges as an attempt to chill free speech and called for them to be dropped.
Other incidents recounted by Bernd were a raid on a house whose owner allowed protesters to organize and camp, and large numbers of officers following small groups of protesters Downtown who handed out flyers and visited offices of various funders of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the private nonprofit leading the training center development.
Bernd said the incident involving her followed one of those Downtown protests. While she covered it as a reporter wearing a press badge, she also attended with a Texan friend who joined directly in the protests. Bernd says they chose to “carpool” due to the length of the trip.
Bernd says the small protest was over-policed, including two van loads of officers following the group. Bernd says a man wearing an earpiece, whom she believed to be a plainclothes officer, flashed the white supremacist “OK” hand symbol at her. “In terms of plausible deniability, this could not have been responding ‘OK’ to something else,” she said.
As the protest broke up, officers continued following Bernd and her friend, she says. Due to the fear of possible arrest or other harassment, they picked up a third protester, a stranger who was heading in the same direction. “This third person was trying to get back to their car,” said Bernd. “We said, ‘We don’t think it’s safe for you…’ We thought it was weird to abandon them at that point.”
Bernd’s friend took the wheel of their car, driving cautiously because police vehicles continued to follow them. Then a uniformed officer pulled them over. Bernd began live-streaming the stop on Twitter, where video shows the incident happened at 125 Ellis St. The video shows the officer asking for the IDs of everyone in the car – with Bernd and the stranger declining and noting the law does not require passengers to identify themselves.
“They ticketed [the friend] for not maintaining her lane, which is bullshit,” said Bernd. The friend also was cited for a suspended license, though she claimed it had been renewed in the system and only the physical copy was still out of date.
The video shows that the officer allowed Bernd to take the wheel and continue on without any arrests. She says she believes the live stream is the reason they were not arrested.
Bernd said she has been contacted about the incident by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides legal assistance to journalists, and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a database of free-press violations. The Freedom Tracker already includes two arrests or detentions related to Defend the Atlanta Forest protest coverage, including the case that is about to result in a lawsuit.
Because Bernd was traveling with protesters, she said she is not certain she was targeted as a journalist, but that the incident is concerning either way.
“They may or may not have been targeting a journalist here,” she said, “but even if they were just targeting protesters it would be equally an infringement, equally as horrible, and equally a violation of the First Amendment as targeting a journalist.”
APD did not respond to a comment request about the traffic stop.
Filmmaker detained at public safety training center site from John Ruch on Vimeo.
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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