FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 21, 2020
CLDC Files Suit to Protect the Free Press from Police Violence
Eugene, OR — Today, CLDC attorneys filed suit in the U.S. Federal District Court in Eugene, alleging that the City of Eugene and members of the Eugene Police Department (EPD) violated journalist Henry Houston’s Constitutional rights when unidentified police officers in an armored vehicle shot Mr. Houston with impact and chemical munitions, despite him clearly and repeatedly identifying himself as media.
The incident occurred on May 31, 2020, amidst growing protests for Black lives after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. That night, in response to local protests, EPD used indiscriminate, brutal, and excessive force against protestors, journalists, and even people on their porches, firing impact (rubber bullet/”foam”) and chemical (teargas and pepper gas) munitions from the turrets of militarized vehicles (called BearCats) and implementing unconstitutional curfews.
At the time of the incident, Mr. Houston was covering the protest for the Eugene Weekly. He was wearing a press badge and carrying a camera. He was standing alone in a parking lot fully separated from protesters and had repeatedly identified himself as press. And yet, the officers did more than ignore his rights; they actually told him and other journalists present that “It doesn’t matter,” just prior to intentionally shooting him after he once again identified himself.
“After a long day of covering rallies and protests, I went out again to document police reaction to those who were continuing to march peacefully for Black lives. I was supposed to be protected under the First Amendment and exempt from the city’s curfew,” says Houston, a staff writer for Eugene Weekly. “Across the country, protesters and journalists have been targeted and injured by overzealous police response. With this lawsuit I want to change how policing is done in Eugene.”
The City’s curfew imposed for the night of May 31, 2020, exempted journalists, but EPD chose to not only ignore that important exemption for those reporting on issues of public concern but to clearly demonstrate indifference, and even contempt, for this fundamental right. This malicious behavior, combined with the physical pain Houston suffered from the “less-lethal” weaponry used on him, forced him to leave the scene of this historical event.
“As a member of the press, Mr. Houston has the legal right to observe major events in order to recount them to the public. This essential role of the free press is such a foundational component of our democracy that it is specifically enshrined in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” said CLDC Executive Director and Senior Staff Attorney Lauren Regan. “And yet, on the night of May 31st, several unidentified members of the Eugene Police Department violated that right.”
And while the harm to Mr. Houston is clear and measurable, perhaps even more alarming is the regularity with which such police repression is occurring. Despite the rhetoric of elected officials, many police departments are responding to the public’s demands to stop police violence with more of the same, with repeated documentation of journalists and legal observers being targeted by police at protests, including a reporter in Indiana who lost an eye after being shot directly with a tear gas canister; and a legal observer in Sacramento who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
“Such State-sanctioned violence and oppression harms not only Henry Houston in his professional capacity, but also every journalist working to document what is happening in America. The effect is downright chilling on our democracy, and such repression cannot be allowed to continue,” said CLDC Staff Attorney Marianne Dugan.
Houston and the CLDC seek to defend the rights of journalists to cover the news without being assaulted by police or otherwise have their constitutional rights violated. They are calling for a jury trial in order to bring light to the abuses by the EPD, and for the award of damages both to compensate Mr. Houston and to punish this official misconduct. If it appears these unlawful tactics will be resuming, we will also ask the Court to issue an order prohibiting further “crowd control” munitions.
In addition to the City, the suit individually names Eugene City Manager Sarah Medary, who authorized the state of emergency and curfews, and the estimated five police officers who participated in the assaults (John Does 1-5). CLDC Staff Attorneys Lauren Regan, Marianne Dugan, and Cooper Brinson are representing Mr. Houston in his pursuit of justice.
View the complaint here.
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