NewsGuild Condemns Arrest; Case Sparks Debate Over First Amendment Rights
Nov. 21, 2017 – The trial of Alexei Wood, a photojournalist arrested at an Inauguration Day protest in Washington, DC, got underway on Nov. 20, sparking fierce debate over journalists’ rights to do their jobs without fear of arrest, as well as other First Amendment issues and matters of law.
As Ryan J. Reilly wrote in the Huffington Post, “They may not have broken any windows, set any fires, tossed any rocks or thrown any bricks. But a United States prosecutor here Monday told a jury that six defendants facing felony charges in connection with the protests and mayhem surrounding President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January deserve to be found guilty of several felony crimes that would expose them to potential sentences of decades in prison.”
NewsGuild President Bernie Lunzer condemned Wood’s arrest and the trial, saying, “There is no basis for the charges. If they are upheld, it would have a chilling effect on all journalists.”
More than 200 people, including eight other journalists, were arrested on Jan. 20, 2017, after windows were smashed. Wood was charged with inciting a riot and destruction of property. If convicted, he faces up to 61 years behind bars.
Wood, who live-streamed the events, was in the first group to face trial on charges related to Inauguration Day protests.
Government Holds Group Responsible
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff said that although there is no evidence the six defendants engaged in acts of violence, the government considers the entire group of protesters responsible.
Defense attorneys asserted that Washington Metropolitan Police indiscriminately and illegally arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, improperly including them with people who participated in acts of violence.
“The prosecution’s case rests on a broad interpretation of the Federal Riot Statute, which could make a participant in a political rally guilty for any property damage that takes place during that time,” Defend J20 Resistance wrote on its website.
Being Nearby is Not a Crime
“Being near a newsworthy event is no crime for anyone, reporters included,” the Reporters Committee for Press Freedom wrote in a letter to Kerkhoff regarding the arrest of Aaron Cantú, another reporter arrested on Inauguration Day. His case is scheduled for October.
“It is clear that Mr. Cantú is a journalist,” the committee wrote. “We question why charges are still pending and would like to know why a journalist faces indictment when it appears he was covering the protests at the time of his arrest.”
Brett Cohen, Wood’s attorney, said Wood’s case was different than the others heard on Nov. 20 because it involves freedom of the press.
Kerkhoff dismissed Cohen’s argument, saying Wood’s video would show him cheering at acts of destruction and celebrating when someone was struck in the groin with a rock.
Cohen insisted that Woods didn’t do anything illegal. Wood’s comments on the video, which appeared to support the destruction of property, were directed at his livestream audience, not people at the protest, he said.
The government, Cohen said, would have to prove that Wood’s comments were made with the intent of encouraging the riot and the destruction of property.
The charges against the seven journalists (other than Wood and Cantú) have been dropped.
While the rock-throwing and fire-setting was taking place, thousands of protesters marched peacefully through downtown Washington. Earlier in the day, protesters organized by a group known as Disrupt J20 sought to shut down entrances to the Inauguration Day ceremonies.