To protect press freedom and the right to record at future protests, the Knight First Amendment Institute makes the following recommendations:

To law enforcement agencies:

  • Require all officers present at the site of a protest to protect press freedom, according to the following guidelines:
    • During a protest, if no dispersal order has been issued or curfew order has come into effect: Police should not interfere with anyone photographing or recording protest scenes or police activity in unrestricted public areas, or anyone engaged in newsgathering activity like interviewing others present at the scene, as long as that person is not engaged in unlawful activity or interfering with police activity. The police should not use force, including less-lethal weapons, against anyone engaged in photographing or recording, nor should they be arrested unless they have broken the law.
    • At a protest scene after a valid dispersal order has been issued or a curfew order has come into effect: Police should exempt journalists from dispersal or curfew orders. In this specific context, when the general public is no longer permitted to remain at the site of a protest, police can use indicators like a press credential, distinctive clothing marked “press,” or professional recording equipment, to guide their determinations about who is exempt from the order. When in doubt, police should assume that someone who appears to be engaged in journalism is in fact a journalist.
  • Provide ongoing training to all active officers on the rights of journalists and protesters, including on:
    • The public’s right to record police activity;
    • Ensuring media access to protest scenes;
    • Using observable indicators, like what a person is wearing or doing, when determining who qualifies as a journalist at a protest;
    • Limiting or abolishing the practice of kettling, or mass indiscriminate arrests of protesters;
    • Use of force guidelines for public demonstrations, with an emphasis on minimizing the use of force (including less-lethal weapons) at protests;
    • Procedures for documenting the confiscation of property during a lawful arrest: Journalists’ reporting equipment should not be seized except in the case of a lawful arrest. A record should be made of any seized property and a copy provided to the individual. Equipment should be returned to the individual upon release from custody, or, if the equipment is needed as evidence, a warrant must be obtained.
  • Familiarize officers with media outlets that frequently cover protests in their patrol area (with the understanding that the list is not comprehensive and subject to change).
  • Organize periodic meetings with local newsrooms and media organizations to discuss the respective roles and responsibilities of police and press before protests happen.
  • Conduct internal investigations of misconduct incidents involving press at protests.
  • Disclose disciplinary action taken against officers involved in misconduct incidents (or provide case status updates).

To state legislatures:

  • Codify into law the requirement that police must actively work to ensure that journalists may operate unhindered at protest scenes.
  • Codify into law the exemption of journalists from curfew orders or dispersal orders given at protests.

To news industry organizations and professional associations:

  • Operate an inclusive credentialing process by providing press passes to anyone engaged in newsgathering who wishes to obtain them, including outreach to freelancers and nontraditional journalists.
  • Offer training on how to cover protests.
  • Offer police training on how to uphold press freedom and the right to record at protests.
  • Meet with law enforcement agencies with whom members are likely to interact, establishing dialogue between press and police.
  • Partner with legal observers to provide more oversight of police conduct at protests.
  • Assist individual journalists who file civil lawsuits against police in defending their First Amendment rights.

To leaders of publications/newsrooms:

  • Organize periodic meetings with local law enforcement agencies to discuss the respective roles and responsibilities of press and police at protests.
  • Facilitate procurement of press passes for journalists, including freelancers, who wish to obtain them by either issuing your own or liaising with news industry organizations.

To journalists covering protests:

  • Review guidelines from press advocacy groups on your rights and how to protect yourself while covering protests.

To the Department of Justice:

  • Complete the existing pattern-or-practice investigations of mistreatment of journalists at protests, and publish the findings.
  • Where credible allegations are made of mistreatment of journalists at protests, open new pattern-or-practice investigations.


What is the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker?

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker was created in 2017 amid recognition of the need to keep tabs on attacks on press freedom in the U.S. With the election of Trump, there was a lot of speculation and fear that press freedom was in decline. But there was not a lot of data. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ, where I was then executive director) and Freedom of the Press Foundation set up the tracker with support from other leading press freedom organizations, including Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Knight First Amendment Institute.

When the tracker was established, no one knew what the data would reveal. But it soon became clear that covering protests was one of the greatest challenges for journalists in the United States—one that had not been fully recognized. In 2018 and 2019, the tracker documented 63 attacks on journalists covering demonstrations. Less than half of those attacks were carried out by members of law enforcement. But since 2020, the tracker has documented 734 such assaults. In 78 percent of those cases, the police are believed to be responsible.

Staffed by journalists, the tracker applies stringent standards, rigorous sourcing, and a scrupulous commitment to the facts in documenting incidents ranging from denials of access and equipment searches or seizures to assaults and arrests. Tracker researchers always seek comments from all sides involved in a press freedom incident before publishing each case to the database. “The database is the beating heart of the Press Freedom Tracker,” said Managing Editor Kirstin McCudden, adding that the staff routinely use the data to spot trends and produce analysis.

One of the initial challenges in creating the tracker was funding. Ironically, an attack on The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs helped seed the new venture. In May 2017, Jacobs was on the campaign trail in Montana covering the congressional race. When Jacobs asked Republican candidate Greg Gianforte a question about health care, Gianforte, who was angry about a previous story published in The Guardian, grabbed Jacobs by the neck and body-slammed him to the ground, breaking his glasses. Gianforte was later charged with misdemeanor assault.

A month later, I was in Myanmar as part of a press freedom delegation when I received news that Gianforte was donating $50,000 to CPJ. This was confusing since Gianforte had never demonstrated any interest in press freedom—and to the contrary had assaulted a reporter. It was only later I learned that Gianforte had made the donation as part of a settlement with Jacobs, which also included a public apology. I decided to direct the funds to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Since then, the tracker has helped transform the press freedom landscape in the U.S. with its data seeding litigation and prompting legislative responses. Meanwhile, Gianforte is now governor of Montana. During his short tenure in Congress, he introduced only two bills that became law–one renaming a post office and the other changing the designation of a wild river. The creation of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, though unwitting, may turn out to be Gianforte’s most enduring legacy.

– Joel Simon