ACLU Appeals Ruling That FBI Agents Who Attacked Journalists Can't Be Held Responsible

Affiliate: ACLU of Puerto Rico
September 10, 2009 12:00 am

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Federal Court Found Enough Evidence That Attack Was Unconstitutional But Let Agents Off The Hook

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SAN JUAN, PR – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed an appeal of a federal court ruling that found that, even though there was enough evidence to prove that FBI agents violated the Fourth Amendment rights of journalists by attacking them unprovoked, the agents who committed the attack could not be held responsible for their actions.

The August 14 decision came in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of journalists who were kicked, punched and pepper sprayed by FBI agents as they attempted to report on the search of a San Juan apartment. While finding that the journalists’ evidence showed there was a violation of their constitutional rights, the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico ruled that the law was not clearly established enough at the time of the attack to hold the agents responsible for their actions, and that the reporters cannot seek compensation for the violation.

“This decision makes clear that the FBI cannot exert excessive force and intimidation every time it wants to avoid public scrutiny. As the ruling found, reporters should be able to approach law enforcement officers without fear of harassment,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group. “Unfortunately, this ruling lets FBI agents who broke the law off the hook. It should have been clear to any law enforcement agent that such brutal force against reporters who were just trying to do their job was not only unacceptable but unlawful.”

In February 2006, several journalists approached FBI agents leaving a San Juan apartment that was being searched to ask for their comments. The FBI agents responded by, among other things, spraying pepper spray in the journalists’ faces, and kicking and punching a reporter.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the journalists in September 2006, and in June 2008 an appeals court found that if the journalists could prove they were “without provocation, pushed, punched, hit by metal batons, and pepper sprayed in the face by federal agents,” it would be a clear violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. In the most recent ruling, the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico held that plaintiffs offered sufficient evidence that their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

“Systemic, unprovoked violence against journalists in Puerto Rico is an ongoing problem that must be stopped. Intimidating journalists to keep them from doing their jobs is a blatant violation of their constitutional rights,” said William Ramirez, Executive Director and attorney with the ACLU of Puerto Rico. “This decision is a good first step toward establishing norms to protect the constitutional rights of reporters, but it will be an empty gesture if we don’t hold law enforcement agents accountable for breaking the law.”

The ACLU will urge the court to overturn the portion of the ruling that found the FBI agents can’t be held responsible and that the reporters should be able to seek compensation for having their constitutional rights violated.

In addition to Crump and Ramirez, attorneys in the lawsuit are Aden Fine of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, Josué González of the ACLU of Puerto Rico and Nora Vargas-Agosta.

The ACLU’s notice of appeal and other related documents are available online here:

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