ACLU Wants Feds Sanctioned for Violence Against Press in Oregon

Federal officers use chemical irritants and crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore., last Wednesday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Federal agents in Portland resumed their assaults on journalists and legal observers just hours after a federal judge ordered them not to do so, the American Civil Liberties Union argued Tuesday in a motion calling for federal agents and their supervisors to be held in contempt.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon issued a temporary restraining order on July 23, barring federal agents holed up at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse from assaulting, dispersing or arresting journalists and legal observers for doing their jobs at the nightly protests there.

In his order, Simon cited precedent from the Ninth Circuit case Leigh v. Salazar.

“An open government has been a hallmark of our democracy since our nation’s founding,” Simon wrote. “When wrongdoing is underway, officials have great incentive to blindfold the watchful eyes of the Fourth Estate. The free press is the guardian of the public’s interests and the independent judiciary is the guardian of the free press.”

To that hallmark, he added: “This lawsuit tests whether these principles are merely hollow words.”

That test is now underway. 

The ACLU says federal agents violated the court order within hours of its issuance. In a motion filed Tuesday, the ACLU claims federal agents have continued to hit journalists and legal observers with pepper balls, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and other “less lethal” munitions. 

In several cases, the agents appear to have fired directly at journalists’ press badges. 

On another night, they pepper-sprayed legal observers at point-blank range, even though they wore blue ACLU vests and bright green “National Lawyers Guild” hats. They shot one legal observer with an impact munition just above her heart, from a distance of four feet.

And the assaults continued after the journalists’ attorney, Matthew Borden, contacted the federal defendants’ lawyer, the motion states. 

In a phone call with Joshua Gardner, attorney for the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service, Gardner claimed he didn’t know which agents had committed the assaults Borden described to him, or who was supervising those officers, according to Borden’s declaration in the case. 

That night, the motion states, federal agents assaulted another journalist who was wearing a vest and a helmet that both said “press” in big block letters. Federal agents threw concussion grenades and tear gas canisters directly at photojournalist Brian Conley’s head, blowing the final “s” in “press” right off his helmet.

“These violations are not inadvertent,” the motion states. “They are intentional acts by a lawless president, who has sent his paramilitary forces to shoot up the streets of Portland, choke downtown in a haze of toxic chemical fumes, and generate re-election soundbites — in blatant disdain of public safety, the rule of law, and the most fundamental principles of our Constitution.”

The motion calls for the heads of the federal agencies deployed in Portland — the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protective Service — to appear personally before the court and explain why they should not face sanctions for failing to comply with the court order.

The ACLU also asked the court to issue a blanket ban on federal agents’ use of lethal and “less lethal” weapons, to bar individual federal agents found to have violated the order from “participating in any armed operations” in Oregon and to impose fines of $500 “for every day a journalist or legal observer is shot, beaten, arrested or intimidated by a federal agent.”

Journalists and legal observers sued the city in June, claiming Portland police were arresting and using violence against journalists of all stripes and legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The city agreed in a preliminary injunction not to enforce orders to disperse against journalists and legal observers, not to use violence or the threat of violence and arrest against them and promised not to seize their photographic equipment or press passes, as had happened to several plaintiffs in the case.

President Donald Trump then sent federal agents with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security to Portland, ostensibly to protect federal property officials claimed was endangered by weeks of daily protests in the movement against systemic racism and police brutality. But federal agents seemed to pick up where Portland police left off, with relentless violence directed specifically at journalists, legal observers and volunteer street medics.

Since then, nearly two dozen journalists and legal observers, including Courthouse News, have filed declarations in the case, memorializing the violence used against them by police.

The motion was filed by Borden, J. Noah Hagey, Athul Acharya and Gunnar Martz with BraunHagey & Borden and Kelly Simon with the ACLU.

“Every day it has existed, federal agents have intentionally violated the court’s TRO,” the motion states. “As a result of the federal agents’ defiance of the court’s order, the free press remains unsafe while trying to document and observe the cataclysmic violence that federal authorities are inflicting on Portland. The federal agents — and their commanders, whom the court ordered to be notified of the TRO — are not above the law.”

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