SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – From police raids on journalists’ homes to the effort to block police-misconduct files from being made public, it hasn’t been a great year for the First Amendment in California.
At a panel discussion Thursday featuring the manifold government assaults on the free press and free speech this year, First Amendment Coalition Director David Snyder said he’s seen an ironic shift toward suppression in a state that touts itself as a free-speech stronghold.
“Our own state’s leaders have taken a number of steps and have been involved in a number of incidents this year which really strike at the core of the press’ ability to do its job,” Snyder said.
In May this year, police took a sledgehammer to the front gate of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody in order to execute a search warrant of his home. Carmody was targeted for selling the autopsy report of recently deceased public defender Jeff Adachi to a news station. The report had been leaked to him by an anonymous source inside the police department.
Carmody was helped by the FAC, which hosted Thursday’s panel titled “California vs. the First Amendment.”
Five different judges signed off on search warrants of Carmody’s home, office and equipment, which Carmody’s lawyer was able to get quashed after weeks of court hearings.
Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California News Publishers Association, said on the panel he was surprised that the judges were even able to issue the warrants in the first place, “considering the constitutional ramifications.”
“To me it really goes to how everybody’s political intentions took over their rational thought and nobody, including judges, thought to even question this,” said Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Cooper called Carmody’s treatment by the police and local officials appalling. “They would say ‘we didn’t think he was a journalist,’ which to me was the most horrifying thing in the world,” Cooper said. “They were saying ‘he was selling it to make a profit,’ and news flash, the newspaper isn’t free.”
Snyder said the raid was made all the more galling for journalists by the celebratory reaction it drew from the public defender’s office and other city officials.
“You saw the acting public defender coming out and cheering it on,” he said. “It was kind of an odd sight to see the public defender cheering on what was plainly an unlawful search and seizure.”
“When public defender’s offices started tweeting out their celebration of this, I thought was in the Twilight Zone,” Cooper said. “That incident chilled whistleblowers going to the press in San Francisco, and we need that more than ever before.”
Cooper said the Chronicle has seen an uptick in law-enforcement overreach in recent years, an observation echoed by Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Baranetsky said this includes requests by district attorney’s offices for reporters’ notes.
The panel also touched on a local free-speech issue — the San Francisco School Board’s controversial decision to cover up several murals depicting the life of George Washington at his namesake high school. The murals, created by artist Victor Arnautoff in 1936, include images of slaves at Washington’s Mount Vernon home and a white soldier stepping over a dead Native American. Those who advocate for removing the murals called them dehumanizing and traumatizing.
Noah Griffin, a columnist and George Washington high school alum, supported keeping the murals uncovered. On Thursday’s panel, he said politics, coupled with the rush to be seen as supporting the “right” position, caused the board to “railroad through” a decision to cover the artwork.
“A lot of the people on the school board saw it as a stepping stone to higher office but totally misread the feeling of the students and citizens of San Francisco on this,” Griffin said. “This was a missed opportunity.”
One First Amendment victory came at the state level this year with the passage of Senate Bill 1421. The law gives the public the right to access records on various types of police misconduct, including instances of sexual assault committed by police officers and where an officer fires a gun at a person resulting in serious injury or death.
Ewert said for decades the police have had the privilege of being exempt from the broad disclosures rules to which most public employees are bound, and several efforts to pass laws like SB 1421 in the past were always defeated by the powerful police unions.
This year was different, in part because of a more receptive Legislature. Though the police unions fought the law tooth and nail, Ewert said: “There was so much outcry from the communities they represented because you had young African American men being killed by police under circumstances that outraged people of color and they couldn’t ignore that any more.”
While a culture change in the state capitol over police misconduct allowed for the passage of watchdog laws like SB 1421, Snyder said California still has far to go in exhibiting the liberal values it professes to hold sacred.
“There’s something that’s not connecting between the ideals of the First Amendment and those ideals actually being carried out,” he said.