A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit by Twin Cities journalists against the Minneapolis Police Department may proceed, citing evidence that officers deliberately targeted journalists and engaged in persistent, unconstitutional misconduct during demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder.
U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright denied motions by the city of Minneapolis to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of the journalists and ordered the city to stand trial. Wright also rejected a motion to dismiss claims against the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which is now also headed for trial following alleged actions against journalists during protests that erupted in Brooklyn Center following the police killing of Daunte Wright in 2021. (Daunte Wright and Wilhelmina Wright are of no relation.)
"The record in this case provides substantial evidence that MPD officers deliberately and systematically targeted journalists, including plaintiffs, who were identifiable as members of the press and not committing any crimes," Wright wrote in her order issued Tuesday.
"Plaintiffs have provided evidence of continuing widespread, persistent pattern of unconstitutional misconduct by MPD, deliberate indifference by city defendants, and evidence of a causal link between MPD's custom and plaintiff's injuries," she wrote.
She also said there was evidence of failures in police training, failures to intervene in cases of excessive force, and police taking actions deliberately intended to injure journalists.
"Law enforcement officers have a duty to intervene to prevent the use of excessive force," Wright wrote.
The city of Minneapolis had contended that its police had not intended to injure two of the journalists who were cited in the lawsuit, saying the actions of the officers were merely reckless.
"However, the record contains numerous examples of actions that were deliberately intended to injure plaintiffs and other reporters," Wright wrote. "The evidence includes statements such as '[Expletive] these media,' statements of officers that they 'enjoyed' shooting civilians, and directives to harm individuals."
The lawsuit was filed in 2021 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and pro bono attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron, the law office of Kevin Riach, and Apollo Law LLC on behalf of journalist Jared Goyette, the Communications Workers of America which includes the NewsGuild, and other journalists who claimed they were attacked by police. Reed Smith LLP also joined the legal team.
In 2022, the ACLU settled a portion of the case with the Minnesota State Patrol that included a payout of $825,00 and various reforms to protect journalists.
But the suit continued against the city of Minneapolis and the Sheriff's Office.
Riach, representing journalists, said that during the protests over George Floyd and Daunte Wright, law enforcement "attacked journalists, fired rubber bullets and pepper spray, arrested journalists, and ordered them to disperse, all to intimidate them and disrupt their coverage of the protests."
"We're grateful Judge Wright recognized this assault on constitutional rights and we look forward to trial," he said.
City of Minneapolis spokesperson Sarah McKenzie declined to comment. Kelsey Demmert, a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, released a statement: "We respect the judicial process and are reviewing the opinion and considering all legal options."
The suit was first brought by Goyette, a freelance journalist. Others who later joined the suit were Craig Lassig, a news photographer; Tannen Maury, a photojournalist; Stephen Maturen, a photojournalist; Katie Nelson, a journalist, photographer and videographer; Tim Evans, a photojournalist; Ed Ou, a photojournalist; and Chris Tuite, a photojournalist.
The lawsuit said Goyette was "shot in the face with less-lethal ballistic ammunition" by Minneapolis police on May 27, 2020, two days after Floyd's death, while documenting demonstrations near the Third Precinct police station. The suit also cites several instances in which Star Tribune reporters were detained or injured by law enforcement projectiles, although none are plaintiffs.
Ou and Nelson were attacked and ordered to disperse during a protest when State Patrol and police were descending on demonstrators, using tear gas and flash-bang grenades on May 30, according to Wright. Lassig, Maury and Maturen were wearing media credentials and carrying journalistic equipment but were nonetheless booked, fingerprinted and cited for violating the curfew, according to Wright.
Evans alleges he was pepper-sprayed by a sheriff's deputy during the Daunte Wright protests despite wearing a large press credential and having two cameras with him. When Evans attempted to get the attention of other law enforcement officers, a second officer allegedly hit Evans on the back of his head. The deputy and the other officer then zip-tied Evans. Evans was eventually escorted away from the protests and directed to leave, according to Wright.
Chris Tuite was photographing Evans' incident when a Hennepin County deputy grabbed Tuite from behind, according to the allegations. A State Patrol major intervened and directed Tuite to leave the protest area, Wright wrote.
Some of the claims in the lawsuit were filed against then-Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, who was overseeing law enforcement response to the protests in Brooklyn Center at that time. Wright dismissed some of the claims on Tuesday but said others should be decided by a trial, including allegations that there was an "unofficial custom, or a deliberate failure to train or supervise" officers about how to treat journalists that led to a violation of their rights.