Five journalists who were tracked, detained, and interrogated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for reporting on conditions at the southern border in 2018 and 2019 brought a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration Wednesday for what the ACLU called an "unprecedented, coordinated attack on the freedom of the press."
"When I saw my photo crossed out in a secret government database, I realized the secondary screening and interrogation wasn't random. I was being targeted by my own government for reporting on conditions at the border."
—Bing Guan, photojournalist
The national ACLU, joined by chapters in New York and California, filed the suit (pdf) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on behalf of Bing Guan, Go Nakamura, Mark Abramson, Kitra Cahana, and Ariana Drehsler. The five are all U.S. citizens who traveled to Mexico as professional photojournalists.
"A core principle of our democracy is the freedom of the press," Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement. "That freedom is imperiled when the government uses the pretext of border screening to interrogate journalists who were simply doing their jobs."
The named defendants in the case are acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and the leaders of two agencies DHS oversees—Mark Morgan of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Matthew Albence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
BREAKING: We're taking the Trump administration to court for its unprecedented, coordinated attack on the freedom of the press.
In violation of the First Amendment, 5 journalists were tracked, detained, and interrogated while reporting on conditions at the US-Mexico border. pic.twitter.com/7zX7gVutpn
— ACLU (@ACLU) November 21, 2019
"Plaintiffs were each impermissibly compelled to disclose information about their journalism work and activities when they sought to re-enter the United States," the complaint explains. "The border officers' questioning aimed at uncovering plaintiffs' sources of information and their observations as journalists was unconstitutional."
Some of the journalists were asked to identify "instigators" from a book of headshots, questioned about previous reporting on conflict zones in the Middle East, and required to show U.S. government agents photographs they had taken of migrants on the Mexican side of the border.
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"One of the journalists in the case was also denied entry to Mexico during the time period of the interrogations, preventing her from continuing her work there," according to an ACLU blog post.
The journalists are "a seeking declaratory judgment that such questioning and compelled disclosure of information violated the First Amendment" as well as "an injunction requiring defendants to expunge any records they have retained regarding the unlawful questioning and to inform plaintiffs whether those records have been disclosed to other agencies, governments, or individuals."
"As a freelance photojournalist covering news and various issues," said Abramson, "I want to know that I am free to work without government interference."
The lawsuit came after NBC7 San Diego reported in March 2019 that the Trump administration was keeping a database of journalists and "instigators" involved with the so-called migrant caravan in late 2018 and early 2019—which, at the time, the ACLU's Bhandari condemned as "an outrageous violation of the First Amendment."
The @ACLU's lawsuit comes after a secret government database was leaked to @nbcsandiego last March, showing 10 journalists were targeted for scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement and border agents. https://t.co/optcvzQUk5
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) November 21, 2019
Recalling that report in a statement Wednesday, Guan explained that "when I saw my photo crossed out in a secret government database, I realized the secondary screening and interrogation wasn't random. I was being targeted by my own government for reporting on conditions at the border."
Cahana said that "journalists are democracy's first line of defense" and highlighted how the case has broad implications for U.S. government interference in press freedom.
"We need to be able to work without fear of being put on a secret government surveillance list or having alerts placed upon our passports," Cahana added. "This interference effectively prevented me and other journalists from carrying out our reporting at the U.S.-Mexico border. It's an issue that should concern everyone."