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Police actions against training center journalists are condemned by press group, entered in national database

Atlanta Police Department officers detain a filmmaker June 15, 2022 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.

By John Ruch

The police detentions of two journalists covering Atlanta’s public safety training center protests are now in a national press-freedom violation database and have been condemned by a statewide journalism group.

“It is always disheartening to hear of any unfair treatment of journalists by law enforcement,” said Nicolle Sartain, president of the Society of Professional Journalists Georgia Chapter (SPJ GA), in a written statement from the group’s board. “It is even worse when that treatment violates the rights and protections provided to journalists by the law and the Constitution that these same officers swear to uphold and protect.”

Unicorn Riot journalist Ryan Fatica films a Georgia State Patrol officer ordering his own arrest in a public park during a May 14 protest against Atlanta’s public safety training center. Fatica was later released without charge but said his reporter’s notebook is still missing. (Photo from a video posted by Unicorn Riot.)

The incidents last year, first revealed by SaportaReport, included police officers pressuring a documentary filmmaker to delete his footage and arresting a reporter covering a march and failing to return his notebook. Neither was charged with a crime, and the Atlanta Police Department (APD) says it is conducting an internal investigation of the former incident, which may also have involved state police. APD and Georgia State Patrol officers were involved in the march-related arrest. Civil rights attorneys have said police actions in both incidents were unconstitutional.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a national database operated by the New York-based Freedom of the Press Foundation in partnership with other groups, independently confirmed both incidents and added them to its list of 2022 press freedom violations, along with interviewees with the journalists. That makes Atlanta and Georgia responsible for about 14 percent of all incidents recorded nationwide.

SPJ GA said it “condemns any arrest of members of the press who are doing their jobs and further condemns any law enforcement attempts to confiscate or erase reporters’ notes, videos or the like. SPJ GA is disappointed with the Atlanta Police Department and Georgia State Patrol for violating not only the First Amendment but also state and federal law.”

The group said it is specifically “concerned about reports of arrests and attempts to destroy journalistic recordings of law enforcement… Such actions are of grave concern and are directly against Georgia’s Shield Law and the federal Privacy Protection Act of 1980.

“These journalists have acted inside their job duties and [it is] the SPJ Code of Ethics to ‘seek truth and report it,’” the SPJ GA statement continued. “They should not be punished for their act of recording and plans to report.”

The Atlanta Press Club would not directly comment on the incidents, but Executive Director Julia Boyd said, “We stand with journalists who exercise their First Amendment rights and tirelessly work to provide relevant and accurate information.”

A context for the detention is the increasingly hot debate over, not only the training center itself, but also protester methods that range from peaceful marches and civil-disobedience trespassing to property vandalism, threatening graffiti, and tossing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward police and site workers. Some protesters around the nation have supported the cause with a similar variety of methods and behaviors, and the project is drawing national press attention. Authorities recently charged several protesters with domestic terrorism on disputed grounds, while a civil rights attorney representing dozens of protesters and journalists claims APD is engaging in a pattern of retaliatory arrests as a form of counter-protest against police reform.

Another context is APD’s long history of unlawful arrests of journalists and other people filming them in public. In 2015 the department was found to be in contempt of court for ignoring a previous lawsuit settlement requirement to train officers about the right to film police.


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