Fresno Bans Journalists—and Everyone Else—From Filming Cops Clearing Out Homeless Camps

Fresno (California) has tried to stop citizens documenting homeless encampments. To stop the violation of First Amendment rights, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is suing.

ACLU NorCal has filed a complaint against a modification to an ordinance passed by the city on February 28, which allows the city to create barriers to protect homeless camp sites when it enters and takes them down. This amended ordinance states that no one is permitted to cross the barrier unless they have been authorized by the city or contractor. A $250 fine or misdemeanor can be imposed for crossing the barrier without authorization. An ordinance contains a clause to protect city officials and contractors against personal liability for any damages they cause during abatement.

This lawsuit states that many encampment sweeps involve the destruction of homeless people’s belongings and may sometimes use excessive force. The complaint states that city officials often take or destroy clothing, shelters, food, ID documents, pets and other personal property during sweeps like these.

Sometimes it is just citizens, advocates and journalists who want to capture the action of their city. According to the ACLU NorCal complaint, this ordinance penalizes those engaging in advocacy, speech, expressive conduct and association during encampment sweeps. It also protects government officials from any liability.  

Dez Martinez (one of the plaintiffs) is the founder of We Are Not Invisible. She often visits encampment sweeps to cover them and upload the recordings to YouTube. Martinez saw city workers place the belongings of homeless people in black bags and promise to deliver them or keep them safe. Martinez asked for workers’ labeling of the bags. Martinez got a pen and labeled the belongings herself after she complained. 

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Martinez is alleged to be able to force city officials into greater care by being public observer. The complaint quotes a homeless individual as saying, “These people wouldn’t walk all over us with Dez.” They behave when she is present. “p” is another word for it.“People have the right to the First Amendment film officers performing official business in the public,” Chessie Thacher (a senior staff attorney with the ACLU NorCal), tells Reason. 

Fear of liability and public scrutiny are essential to government accountability. Fresno’s new ordinance gives Fresno’s government a way to conceal their misconduct and prevent liability. Thacher agrees.

Plaintiffs request the court to declare the ordinance invalid and unenforceable, to stop Fresno’s enforcement of it and prohibit Fresno’s issuing administrative citations and prosecuting criminal penalties under the ordinance. 

Fresno City Attorney’s Office didn’t respond. ReasonPlease send a request to comment.