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Lawsuit against police for targeting journalists during Minneapolis protests heads toward trial


Lawsuit against police for targeting journalists during Minneapolis protests heads toward trial

Sep 27, 2023 | 4:25 pm ET
By Max Nesterak
Lawsuit against police for targeting journalists during Minneapolis protests heads toward trial
NBC video and photojournalist Ed Ou was pepper sprayed and shot with a less-lethal projectile. Photo courtesy of ACLU of Minnesota.

A lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office alleging law enforcement officers targeted journalists during the 2020 protests and riots following the police murder of George Floyd is headed to trial barring a settlement agreement.

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected motions by the city and the sheriff’s office to dismiss the lawsuit, writing the 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.”

The lawsuit was brought by a group of journalists led by Jared Goyette, who was hit in the head with a less-lethal projectile while on assignment as a freelance journalist for the Washington Post. Goyette, who has previously reported for the Reformer, also alleges he was harassed and threatened by MPD while covering the demonstrations and unrest that spread throughout the city in the days after Floyd’s killing.

“Journalists must be free to report on government conduct,” plaintiffs’ attorney Kevin Riach said in a statement. “But during the George Floyd and Daunte Wright protests, 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 look forward to trial,” he added.

A Minneapolis spokeswoman said the City Attorney’s Office did not have a comment on the ruling. A spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Goyette’s initial complaint, filed in June 2020, cites numerous other examples of journalists being injured by law enforcement despite identifying themselves as members of the press.

NBC photojournalist Ed Ou was pepper sprayed and shot with a less lethal projectile that bloodied his face. KSTP reporter Ryan Raiche was pepper sprayed despite telling police he was a member of the press. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested live on television by state troopers.

The plaintiffs, which include eight journalists and the Communications Workers of America, partially settled their lawsuit in February 2022 with an $825,000 agreement with the Minnesota State Patrol that included reforms to protect journalists.

Freelance photojournalist Linda Tirado was permanently blinded in her left eye and won a $600,000 settlement from the city of Minneapolis in a separate lawsuit.

(Disclosure: I  was hit in the chest by a 40mm rubber bullet while covering the 2020 riots in Minneapolis but am not a party in the lawsuit.)

The city argued that MPD officers did not intend to injure journalists, but the judge pointed to examples showing otherwise: Officers made statements such as “F*** these media” and that they “enjoyed” shooting civilians.

“There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that MPD officers deliberately targeted Plaintiff Goyette as a journalist and intentionally shot him in the head,” Wright wrote in her order.

Goyette and the other plaintiffs in the case also won a six-year “monitored injunction,” also issued by Wright, barring Minnesota state law enforcement from using force against journalists or ordering them to disperse while covering protests. The ruling does not apply to local law enforcement or the National Guard, however.

The Minneapolis Police Department is currently facing state and federal supervision, following U.S. Department of Justice and Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigations that revealed a pattern and practice of discrimination.

Those court actions were initiated following Floyd’s murder and subsequent response by police in which they seemed to indiscriminately fire tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators, escalating tensions between law enforcement and the public.

The city has spent millions settling with demonstrators over injuries inflicted by police.

An after-action review by independent auditors painted a damning picture of the city’s response to the unrest. The mayor and police chief failed to implement the city’s emergency plans or give officers clear guidance, including when and how to use rubber bullets and chemical irritants, according to the report.

Goyette and the other plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU-MN and pro bono attorneys from Fredrikson & Byron, the Law Office of Kevin Riach, and Apollo Law LLC, and Reed Smith LLP.