Feb. 26, 2018 – NewsGuild member Michael Faulk has filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Louis and nearly a dozen members of its Metropolitan Police Department, charging the officers assaulted him when he and approximately 120 others were arrested at a protest Faulk was covering for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sept. 17, 2017.
Faulk suffered multiple injuries during the arrest, including to his right wrist, legs, hips and neck. In addition, his “unlawful arrest and assault resulted in him spending 13 hours in the St. Louis jail and has caused continuing psychological and professional distress,” the suit says.
Faulk began covering the Sunday protests in the afternoon and continued reporting throughout the day, riding his bike to various locations and tweeting.
Late that night, he was caught in a “kettle,” a controversial police technique used to corral groups of protesters. He and others were repeatedly told to move back, but there was nowhere to go, the suit says. “We are closed in on all four sides, now,” Faulk wrote on his Twitter feed at the time. “I have no idea where people are supposed to go.”
While he was kettled, Faulk was grabbed by an officer and was pushed from behind by another. Several officers then “used their full weight to tackle him to the ground,” although Faulk did not resist, the suit alleges.
One of the officers “placed his boot onto Mr. Faulk’s head and used his weight to press Mr. Faulk’s head into asphalt of the street,” and another “leaned down toward him, and sprayed him directly in the face with pepper spray from a distance of less than two feet,” the suit says.
Faulk’s press credentials were clearly visible throughout the day, including at the time of his arrest. He also informed the officers verbally that he was working for the Post-Dispatch, the suit says. A photographer for Getty Images was also arrested that night, as were two documentary filmmakers and an independent livestreamer. At least five more journalists were arrested while covering protests on Oct. 3.
Once he was brought to the city jail, Faulk was placed in a cell with approximately 15 other men, where he continued to try to report on events, interviewing his cell mates. He was then separated from the other prisoners and placed in his own cell. He was bailed out by the Post-Dispatch.
Upon his return to work, Faulk was prohibited from reporting on the protests, which continued through September and early October, and was prevented from writing any articles about the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department or other police departments, due to his employer’s concerns about a perceived conflict of interest.
The suit contends that the arrest has stymied Faulk’s professional opportunities, which had been on an upward trajectory, and says it is doubtful that Faulk, 32, will be able to continue his journalistic career in St. Louis.
The complaint, filed on Feb. 23, says police violated his rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The suit says Faulk “was raised with tremendous respect for law enforcement and his justice system,” noting that his mother was a Chief Assistant District Attorney in Alabama for 16 years and later served as District Attorney for four years.
It also notes that Faulk had previously covered mass demonstrations in the U.S., Nicaragua and Honduras, but the arrest on Sept. 17 was his first.
The protests followed the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white police officer, who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, in 2011. Stockley, who was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, had been recorded minutes before the shooting saying, “We’re killing this motherfucker,” the suit says. Stockley’s acquittal by Judge Timothy Wilson prompted several nights of protest beginning on Sept. 15, which Faulk reported on.
Faulk’s lawsuit was filed by attorney David Nelson and lawyers from the ArchCity Defenders, an organization that has worked to address disparities in the region’s court system. The American Civil Liberties Union also filed suit on behalf of several non-journalists.
A federal judge ruled in November in favor of complainants who said the police response to the protests was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry found that St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers “exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct.”