For Immediate Release
ACLU Appeals Ruling That FBI Agents Who Attacked Journalists Can't Be Held Responsible
Federal Court Found Enough Evidence That Attack Was Unconstitutional But Let Agents Off the Hook
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - 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
"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
The ACLU's notice of appeal and other related documents are available online here: www.aclu.org/freespeech/
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.