LA Mayor Bass Must Protect Free Speech
City of Los Angeles Files Lawsuit Against Free Speech
Mayor Karen Bass,
This is a time when the suppression of fundamental rights is intensifying across the country. In that light, the undersigned community organizations from across Los Angeles must express our deep concern about the political and legal repression that your administration is currently leading against members of the public.
On April 5, the City Attorney filed a lawsuit against Ben Camacho, a journalist with the publication Knock LA, and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community group that researches and documents police surveillance in Los Angeles. The lawsuit demands the complete censorship of public records that city officials made public to Mr. Camacho in response to a California Public Records Act lawsuit. The lawsuit even demands a court order “authorizing the County Sheriff to seize said property from the unlawful possession of Defendants and return said property to Plaintiff forthwith.” And to add insult to injury, the lawsuit demands that both Mr. Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition pay the city’s litigation fees and attorney’s costs.
The prospect of demanding that police forces hunt down journalists and political groups in order to seize materials that police themselves provided them is unconscionable. It is also unconstitutional. The first line of the Los Angeles Times reporting on this lawsuit tells much of the story: “In a move immediately denounced as legally meritless by 1st Amendment and media rights experts, the city of Los Angeles has sued a local journalist and an activist group over the online publication of undercover LAPD officers’ pictures — images the city had itself provided.” The same article quotes Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, stating that the city’s lawsuit is “on very weak legal grounds” because the law “is clearly established that when the press lawfully obtains something, they’re allowed to truthfully report it.” Yet the city is forcing Mr. Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition to muster legal resources in defending this dangerous case.
Contrary to your public statements, there is nothing “egregious” about the publication of these public records. Nor is that publication the result of a mysterious or suspicious “breach.” In fact, there’s no evidence that any of the records depict undercover cops. At the time the photographs were published, the City Attorney unambiguously stated that it was withholding undercovers from the production. After the photographs were published, Chief Moore along with other police sources confirmed that “personnel who work in an undercover capacity were excluded.” What appears to be happening now is that the LA Police Protective League (LAPPL) – which in February began negotiating with the city over the expiration of their current labor contract this July – is trying to retroactively expand the definition of “undercover” to encompass every police officer. City officials are not only enabling that outrageous power grab, they are declaring it suddenly illegal for the public to possess records that the city made public.
The city’s legal and rhetorical escalations are putting our communities in danger. LAPD has killed more people than any other police department in the country for multiple years over the past decade. Police have a long history of targeting those who challenge their impunity. The minimal transparency offered by the California Public Records Act, a law enacted in 1968 during the heyday of the civil rights movement, is critical to police accountability as long as policing continues to exist. It is already a historical shame that the city’s first Black woman mayor and first woman city attorney are eager to defy fundamental constitutional principles to please a police force known for its violence against Black, Indigenous, Brown, and other marginalized people. It is a failure of leadership to cower to police intimidation and violate the First Amendment rights of journalists, political groups, and community members.
The records published by Mr. Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition were made public following a years-long process that involved several LAPD officials and divisions, a court, and the L.A. City Attorney’s Office. These records, including the pictures of LAPD officers, were physically handed to Mr. Camacho by the City Attorney’s office as part of an offer to settle a Public Records Act lawsuit that Mr. Camacho filed. The records were then shared with the public in many media, including a website built by Stop LAPD Spying Coalition that displays the photographs in a searchable yearbook-like format.
The photographs at issue here don’t show any more of their faces than their unmasked selves show us every day. We, the public who pay police their salaries, are entitled to all of the information published by Mr. Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which is why the City Attorney ordered that information turned over in the first place. The publication of this public information is protected by the federal and state constitutions. We are outraged by the City’s move to violate these rights.
We have not forgotten that we found out Laquan McDonald was executed by police in Chicago because a journalist made a public records request. Public record requests reveal how much money the City spends on policing versus services such as housing. We use them to uncover public corruption, cover ups, and lies. We use them to identify the police officers causing harm in our communities. Journalists and community members use public records to turn the light of truth on the wrongs committed by public institutions, officials, and employees.
By condemning and demonizing the publication of these legally-obtained public records, Mayor Bass, you contribute to the criminalization and demonization of public access to basic information about our public institutions. Your dog-whistling is turning violent hounds on journalists and community members who are doing their part to keep our communities safer. It’s dangerous, and it must stop.
We are calling on you and the City of Los Angeles to dismiss this egregious lawsuit against Mr. Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. The lawsuit is a breach of public trust and a brazen violation of basic constitutional rights.
Black Alliance for Just Immigration
ACLU of Southern California
Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Southern California
Black Jewish Justice Alliance
California Immigrant Policy Center
Ground Game LA
Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace
National Conference of Black Lawyers
National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles
People’s City Council
People Organized for Westside Renewal
South Asian Network
The Robinson School for Public Awareness and Community Engagement
The Row LA – The Church Without Walls – Skid Row
White People for Black Lives
Youth Justice Coalition