St. Louis County police officer during Ferguson protest on August 19

Journalists arrested while covering ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer have sued the St. Louis County police.

The lawsuit alleges [PDF] that at least twenty officers, whose identities remain unknown, engaged in “unlawful conduct” that “was undertaken with the intention of obstructing, chilling, deterring, and retaliating against plaintiffs for engaging in constitutionally-protected speech, newsgathering, and recording of police activities.”

Police are accused of obstructing press, who were assigned to provide “oversight of police action against citizens engaged in protest activity.” As they suppressed the journalists’ First Amendment rights, they allegedly violated their right to be “free from unreasonable searches and seizures” and subjected them to “false arrest and battery” in violation of state law.

Ryan Devereaux, a journalist with The Intercept, Lukas Hermsmeier, a freelance journalist for several German newspapers, Ansgar Graw, senior political US correspondent for Die Welt and Welt am Sonntag and Frank Herrmann, US correspondent for a group of regional newspapers in Germany are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Both Devereaux and Hermsmeier were arrested on August 18-19 of last year when armored police vehicles were entering the streets around West Florissant while firing tear gas into the residential area. An armored vehicle came close to Devereaux and Hermsmeier as they were trying to get back to their car and both stepped forward with their hands in the air. They held their press identification and announced they were “press” or “journalists.”

Officers had their weapons trained on the journalists as they motioned them to move toward them. They were instructed by one unit to move toward a second unit of officers. That second unit opened fire and hit Devereaux and Hermsmeier with rubber bullets. Devereaux was hit once in his back and Hermsmeier was hit twice by shots.

The two journalists were surrounded by officers with weapons drawn and, despite their efforts to explain they were journalists, they were put in handcuffs with plastic ties and arrested. They were in handcuffs for several hours and Hermsmeier complained about numbness in his hands. And one officer driving the arrested journalists allegedly complained that police were getting a “bad rap” in the media.

Graw and Herrmann were both arrested on August 18. At a gas station on West Florissant Avenue, Graw approached a St. Louis County officer and asked him a few questions about 1 pm. The officer allegedly suggested Graw should be ashamed that he is a journalist because journalists were “telling lies about Ferguson.”

Later, about 2 pm, Graw, who had a press badge, was allegedly informed he had to “keep moving or be arrested.” He kept walking in circles to take photographs but also asked an officer about this rule.

“That’s it, I’ve warned you!” one officer allegedly said. Officers were ordered to, “Go get them!” Both Graw and Herrmann were arrested. When Graw asked the officer who ordered his arrest for his name, he said his name was “Donald Duck” and another officer tightened the plastic ties in such a manner that seemed intended to inflict deliberate pain.

The lawsuit argues that the journalists were subject to “arrest and detention without probable cause for exercising their right to record and document police activity.”

It highlights multiple examples of police unconstitutionally suppressing news gathering or recording of police. For example, on August 11, journalist David Carson sent a message on Twitter that he was being ordered to leave or face arrest. Fox2Now indicated news crews were being “asked to leave the Ferguson area” on August 13. An Al Jazeera news crew was tear gassed that same day. Two journalists, Ryan Reilly and Wesley Lowery, of Huffington Post and the Washington post respectively, were assaulted and arrested in a McDonald’s after police accused them of refusing to leave. That occurred on August 13.

According to Kathy Gill, by August 22, at least thirteen identified and unidentified journalists were arrested by police.

“As part of this concerted effort to suppress constitutionally protected newsgathering and recording of the protests and police response, senior officials at the SLCPD requested and received a ban by the Federal Aviation Administration of air traffic in more than 37 square miles of airspace surrounding Ferguson for 12 days, for the purpose of keeping away news helicopters,” the filed complaint indicates.

Multiple violations of journalists’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights are alleged. The lawsuit requests an injunction to prevent the police from further “illegal and unconstitutional” action against the press, a decision that finds the journalists’ rights were violated and damages for journalists who endured the alleged unlawful actions.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."