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What Criminal Laws Protect Reporters From Assault?

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By George Khoury, Esq. on May 29, 2017 10:00 AM

It is generally understood that journalists and reporters are protected under the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the First Amendment does little to criminalize an attack or assault on members of the press. Generally, when members of the media are attacked, only the typical criminal assault charges will be brought.

A recent example of an attack on the press that has made national headlines involved Republican political candidate Greg Gianforte "body slamming" a reporter. This attack has resulted in paltry misdemeanor assault charges against the candidate. It has also caused an uproar surrounding the lack of stronger criminal protections for journalists and reporters.

Are Reporters Covered by Hate Crime Statutes?

Despite freedom of the press being enumerated in the First Amendment, hate crime statutes do not extend to cover journalists or reporters. This means that an attacker that is targeting a reporter due to hate toward the media will not be prosecuted any differently than an ordinary assault.

Some state's criminal laws provide for aggravated charges when a crime is motivated by malice, intimidation, or other like factors. In those states, if an attack on a reporter is particularly egregious, aggravated charges could potentially be brought.

Civil Rights Protections

Under civil rights laws, both federally and in certain states, a reporter may have civil remedies after an attack prompted by their status as a reporter. Pursuant to one of the broadest and strongest civil rights laws in the country, 42 USC 1983, a reporter or journalist can sue a government official or entity for violating their First and Fourth Amendment rights. This statute provides for civil liability when government officials deny people their civil rights.

If a reporter is attacked by a police officer, or other government official, while lawfully trying to report or gather the news, reporters not only will have claims under the Fourth Amendment for any assault they suffer, but also under the First Amendment for being prevented from engaging in free press activities.

Also, some states provide other similar protections. For example, in California, the Bane Act prohibits government officials from denying a person their civil rights through the use of intimidation, coercion, or force.

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