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Journalists lose bid for better access at Oakland homeless camp removal site

A federal judge said Oakland's rules for accessing encampments are not too restrictive to overcome the city's safety interest to clear the lot.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Journalists who claim the city of Oakland has restricted them from documenting the dismantling of a large homeless encampment lost a bid to block the city from doing so.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III denied a motion for a temporary restraining order, finding the city’s rules for access do not violate their First Amendment rights.

At a hearing Friday, attorney Anthony Prince — representing unhoused people — told Orrick that Oakland intentionally kept out people who want to document the sweeps closely. He said the city began blocking reporters on April 24, the same day that unhoused people called for a press conference which city workers physically prevented. 

Prince also claimed the city kept some reporters too far away to photograph “the true drama and trauma — that cannot be done if people are many feet away.”

Oakland's attorney Jamilah Jefferson said some reporters have joined protests. Spokesperson LaTonda Simmons said she saw reporters pressing against fences to prevent the city from cutting them, and others arrived too early and bypassed checkpoints.

“We have seen in our independent media some representatives perform well when asked to move out of the way to perform our work,” Simmons added. 

Plaintiff Yesica Prado of San Francisco Public Press disagreed.

“I’ve been having so many troubles accessing the site, I’m always having to wait hours to actually enter the site,” Prado said. She said the city’s public information officer is often not on site and avoids her questions, and claimed police officers have told her to come early in the morning and sneak in if she wants access.

“I’m not trying to break the rules, I’m trying to be compliant and just do my work,” she said.

“I’ll tell you what the extreme measure is — when you impose prior restraint,” Prince added. 

“It seems that the city doesn’t quite understand that with the constitutional requirement, with regard to time, manner and place restrictions, they have to be not just less restrictive, but the least restrictive. People are not able to actually get their possessions together. That's the whole point of having the media scrutinizing, and public access — because of these very abuses.”

A woman who lives at the site also said she saw people’s belongings, including hers, being bulldozed, and said she was blocked for more than two hours. She also claimed there were false arrests and that after hours police escorted bulldozers and pushed down fences at high speed while residents were nearby. 

Orrick gave the city until Monday to provide more evidence before he issued an order. He declined Prince’s request to give the plaintiffs time to respond to Oakland’s filings. “I will assume that you would not be happy with whatever the city provides and would have many reasons to oppose it," Orrick said.

In a 10-page order issued Sunday, Orrick sided with the city and said the plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of success on the merits because the limitations on speech are reasonable, content-neutral and permissible under the First Amendment.. 

Orrick said the city’s interests are legitimate and substantial, and protecting workers and encampment residents during moving operations is “paramount.” He reminded the plaintiffs the city is building a large affordable housing development, and has faced threats of explosives and obstructions.

“The restrictions are also narrowly tailored and do not burden more speech than necessary to further the city’s legitimate interests,” he wrote.

Going forward, verified reporters can enter the site for at least half an hour and Oakland must have enough escorts to permit all interested journalists at least 30 minutes daily, Orrick ruled. He noted no one had claimed residents are prohibited from talking to journalists outside the encampment or during escorted visits, during which journalists can photograph and document activities. 

“These provide ample alternative channels for the journalists to record the activities and for the impacted individuals to share their stories,” Orrick wrote. “While free access to information is of critical importance to the public, as discussed here, there is low risk that the public’s access to information will be impeded. But the public also has a strong interest in the affordable housing planned for the site of the encampment, and its development risks serious delay without the reasonable restrictions imposed by the city.”

Work continued at the site Saturday and will go into this week with the addition of permanent fencing.

Prado and co-plaintiff Lisa Garcia did not respond to a request for comment before press time. 

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