The Republican National Convention may be gone, but we’re in for a long ride on the swirl of legal issues it created. Think of it in the coming months as Court Fest.
$10 million. That’s the key here.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman insisted that the RNC host committee use some of its private donations to buy police professional liability insurance to cover up to $10 million in damages and unlimited legal costs. It was a first-of-its-kind and, in retrospect, prescient move on Coleman’s part. It’s unlikely judgments will total more than $10 million, so it’s unlikely the city would have to pay anything. But it’s the kind of situation that brings out the lawyers.
Of course, civil lawsuits against the City of St. Paul alleging police brutality top the list of legal outcomes we’ll be watching for a long time. How many? Well, there were 800 arrests. There’s no telling how many other individuals might sue, but odds are good someone will. Attorneys from the city’s insurer have already contacted some plaintiff’s attorneys.
“The Minnesota Civil Liberty Union board will meet next week to decide how to consider a series of lawsuits related to civil liberties issues,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director.
There are subsets of the arrested who might sue. Some were mere passersby, some were medics, some were anarchists. Another subset is the journalists, and they can be divided into two categories: mainstream and self-proclaimed.
‘Lottery from hell’
Minnesota Independent has compiled a list of journalists known to have been arrested. The names and their organizations range from Olivia Katz, from the Glass Bead Collective, to Amy Forliti, Associated Press reporter. A personal favorite is Lambert Rochfort, from Pepperspray Productions.
Art Hughes, credentialed freelancer for Public News Service who was arrested, said there was no way to gauge the demeanor of the police officer behind the mask. “The experience was like winning the lottery from hell,” he said.
The perception that it was a lottery is an element to consider. Under the First Amendment, journalists, self-proclaimed or mainstream, have no more rights than any other citizen standing on the street, according the media attorney Mark Anfinson.
The Constitution does prohibit police from targeting journalists at work. At least some of the arrested journalists displayed credentials on lanyards worn around their necks, and at junctures in the course of being arrested many told police they were journalists. Didn’t seem to matter.
Arrested journalists who may feel they would lose suing under the First Amendment have other recourse. Any citizen improperly treated by police can sue under the Fourth and Fifth amendments, which protect them from unreasonable search and seizure and guarantee the right to a trial.
Who is a journalist and who is not? As recently as the last national party conventions that question was easily answered. Today, not so simple. With the advent of bloggers, You Tube and Twitter, the definition is fuzzy.
“Self-proclaiming journalists may have diluted the police’s capacity to distinguish between mainstream and other journalists,” Anfinson said.
Historically, the courts have sometimes sided with mainstream journalists because they were consistent and played by the same rules, Anfinson said.
“Does that same recognition continue to prevail if every Tom, Dick or Sally says ‘I’m a journalist but I don’t necessarily play by the rules?’ ” Anfinson asked. “I don’t think the courts are there yet.”
Were the police truly justified in arresting 800 people? A look at the images captured by $2 million worth of surveillance cameras spread about the city would go a long way toward answering that question. But so far, the police have been unwilling to release the images to the public, despite several requests.
The argument against making them available is that they may be needed as part of a criminal investigation. The arguments for releasing them are that they were taken with cameras that belong to the public, and releasing them is not going to change the images and in fact, may aid in further investigation by bringing in more witnesses. Talk of releasing the images has been floating around city hall. Stay tuned for more on as that develops.
Judith Yates Borger reports on legal affairs, science and other subjects. She can be reached at judy [at] judithyatesborger [dot] com.