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With the GOP convention over, now come the lawsuits

Rings of police surround protesters during the GOP convention.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Rings of police surround protesters during the GOP convention.

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.

Defining ‘journalist’
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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/15/2008 - 12:13 pm.

    Of course I understand what you’re saying Joel….but don’t I have as much right to waste the city’s money and the court’s time as anyone else?


  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/15/2008 - 09:55 am.

    I’m seriously considering suing the city of Saint Paul and council member Dave Thune for derelection of their sworn duty to protect my family’s safety in favor of furthering the RNC welcoming committee’s plan to spread mayhem.

  3. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/15/2008 - 11:46 am.

    Kind of a waste of time, Swiftee. Governmental authorities and agents are under no legal obligation to protect anyone, as you probably should know better than most.

    You might want to take a look at the details of the insurance policy; word I have is that there’s no upper limit on the payout for things like police brutality and civil defense of accusations of same.

    As to the 800 number, it doesn’t much matter. The issue in court — should it get to court — isn’t going to be whether or not the numbers were about right, but if Officer John Doe (and it’s going to be a lot of those; for some reason or other, the Imperial Stormtrooper gear does not make identification of individual officers easy) had PC to arrest Sally Protester, J. Random Passerby, Bob Journalist, or whoever.

    There won’t be a lot of those; if you look at payout for the most egregious, well-documented cases of abuses by police (say, Golden Valley’s finest, upon being informed that a white guy had robbed a bank, jumping and thumping the nearest black guy) there’s not going to be large enough pot of gold to interest the folks who have to work on contingeny fees; that ten mil is just a mirage, and the likes of Bob Bennet don’t go mirage prospecting.

    That said, there won’t be a lot of prosecutions out of this, either. The theme of the day(s) is going to be nolle and CCD.

    As to the not releasing the images pravda, it’s just that: official truth. The Minnesota Data Practices Act doesn’t permit the authorities to privatize public data just because they really, really wanna; it’s the sort of suit that they lose, when MSM types actually bother to file them, which they generally don’t.

  4. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/15/2008 - 02:21 pm.

    Oh, absolutely; go for it.

  5. Submitted by Tim Holm on 09/15/2008 - 02:52 pm.

    Thank you for your update on the highly troubling reports of irresponsible police actions during the Republican National Convention in St Paul, and related.

    I would simply like to bring attention to the fact that non journalists are also American citizens, that there are more and more of them and that they are doing a fabulous job in making up for the lack of adequate or credible news coverage by the so called mainstream press.

    These so called self declared journalists, who are here to stay, thank goodness, because they legitimately report the news, are not getting rich at it while news reporting by the mainstream press has become more a self serving industry reporting news for “money’s sake”. The public is desperate for selfless facts and a return to a majority truth, “change we can believe in.”

    Self declared journalists are rapidly commanding the attention of the public and becoming one of our many sources of news. It is our duty as citizens to protect them, their right to publish their views and the news as they see it. All power to them!

    Besides, why ever would “mainstream” journalists receive different, even favored, attention in the eyes of the law than any one else, especially after sweep arrests like most of those seem to have been in St Paul?

    I suggest you delve deeper into your own integrity and high journalistic standards by not going along so graciously with the false premise and anti American idea of one person having more rights than another … for any reason, regardless of its source, please. There is just too much at stake now.


  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/15/2008 - 03:51 pm.

    Journalists for nontraditional non-mainstream media ARE still journalists. Why did the police even try to separate them out from those they consider “real” reporters?

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/16/2008 - 12:22 am.

    That’s a cheap shot, “Another subset is the journalists, and they can be divided into two categories: mainstream and self-proclaimed.” You can see in the video of her arrest how Amy Goodman was manhandled without provocation and with her credentials displayed to the police. Democracy Now isn’t mainstream, so despite being on hundreds of radio stations, I guess you think she’s just “self-proclaimed”?

    Other journalists were in harm’s way to get us the story, Ms. Borger. Where were you?

  8. Submitted by Joel Rosenberg on 09/16/2008 - 08:15 am.

    The Amy Goodman video is kind of a Rorschach test. Those folks determined to find abuse will see her “manhandled without provocation”; those folks determined not to find abuse will see her interfering with a lawful arrest, and getting arrested for it.

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