A federal judge Thursday imposed an indefinite ban on the State Patrol, Minneapolis police and other law enforcement agencies from using force against journalists in the field, which occurred while documenting the civil unrest in the Twin Cities following the killing of George Floyd.
The preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright picks up as a temporary restraining order was about to expire and will last until the resolution of a class-action lawsuit that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota soon after Floyd's death while in police custody in May 2020.
The 45-page lawsuit said officers threatened, assaulted and, in several cases, arrested members of the media, even after they identified themselves as journalists.
Wright's order puts law enforcement in the state on notice to refrain from using force against journalists as the suit continues, but it also recognizes the evidence presented by the ACLU on behalf of Jared Goyette of Minneapolis, a freelance journalist who has written articles for several newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Guardian.
"Many of the alleged incidents of misconduct in this case involved law enforcement officers actively disregarding clearly displayed press credentials, distinctive clothing, and other [indicators] that individuals were members of the press," Wright wrote.
At the time the suit was filed, state Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon contended that recognizing a reporter versus a rioter can be challenging in a chaotic environment. He has so far not provided a comment about Wright's order.
"When conducting law enforcement operations to restore order and keep people safe," Gordon said in spring 2020, "it can be difficult for officers to distinguish journalists from those who are violating a curfew order or not complying with commands to leave an area."
Wright gave that claim no credence in her order, writing, "Rather than an inability to identify members of the press, the record reflects many instances of law enforcement officers willfully disregarding the relevant identifiers. This demonstrates a problem of compliance, not a problem of clarity."
An attorney for the ACLU said that Wright's order is a significant validation of the allegations made against law enforcement.
"There's an acknowledgment here by the court that you can't let your people run around and trample on people's rights with impunity," said ACLU attorney Isabella Salomao Nascimento. "The court has accepted the evidence that we have presented."
While the Star Tribune is not a plaintiff in this suit, the newspaper is heartened by the order and what it means for journalists across the state.
"We are very pleased with the result," said Star Tribune legal counsel Randy Lebedoff. "It should go a long way to ensuring that reporters stay safe when they are doing their jobs reporting on police activity during crisis situations."
Goyette said early Thursday evening, "I am grateful for the judge's ruling. It represents an important protection for journalists trying to do their jobs in moments like we saw [in 2020], when having an independent press present to document what happens is so critical. It's important to remember that we are at the beginning of this case, and we still have a lot to learn about law enforcement's actions and decisions during the unrest."
Messages seeking comment were left Thursday afternoon with the state Department of Public Safety, the agency the oversees the State Patrol, and the Minneapolis Police Department. None have responded.
Salomao Nascimento said the indefinite nature of a preliminary injunction vs. a temporary restraining order, which requires an end date, also signals how seriously the court is taking the plaintiffs' allegations and part of what makes this such "an exceptional order."
Wright "has made an expressed decision to make this [injunction] last through the length of the case," Salomao Nascimento said.
Salomao Nascimento estimated that "we're not expecting to have a trial until 2023. So the press will take heart and comfort that for the next two years they have this protection."
Asked whether the judge's order could nudge the defendants toward settling and avoiding a trial, the civil rights attorney said, "We're always open to it, if they want to talk about a settlement."
The lawsuit said that the freelancer, 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.
Among those named as defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Minneapolis; Police Chief Medaria Arradondo; state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington; Col. Matthew Langer, who leads the Minnesota State Patrol; and "John Does" described as officers of the Minneapolis police and State Patrol.
Another defendant is Bob Kroll, former president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, who is cited as having made statements while heading the labor union that inflamed the situation by attacking and blaming the "liberal media."
The suit spells out that its ultimate goals are to make permanent a ban on law enforcement targeting journalists, damages compensating the plaintiffs for their injuries, payment of the plaintiff's legal fees and whatever other award or relief "the court deems equitable and just."