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COLUMN: The trials of two journalists, protests in DC threaten more than jail time, it threatens the First Amendment


President Donald Trump’s inauguration was less than a year ago and that day threatened more than the American political status quo — it brought an unprecedented threat to the First Amendment.

During Trump’s inauguration, a group called the “black bloc,” an anarchist/anti-fascist group, marched through Washington D.C. and essentially rioted. More than 200 people were arrested. Two of the people are freelance journalists Alexei Wood and Aaron Cantu.

Wood was traveling with the group and live streamed their march. He recorded the rioting and police roundups. His video is the central piece of the prosecution’s case, because it shows “the words and actions of participants in the ‘black bloc’ during the riot and captures the destruction and violence during the riot,” according to the U.S. district attorney prosecuting the case.

The people will be tried in groups, all facing charges of rioting, conspiracy to riot, inciting others to riot and multiple acts of property destruction. If convicted they could face up to 60 years in prison. The prosecution is using a D.C. law that places collective responsibility on the group, meaning an individual is guilty of crimes other members of their group committed because they tolerated or ignored, even if they didn’t actively engage in a crime.

Laws like these are threatening our First Amendment.

Our freedom to protest is one of the building blocks on which all our other freedoms rest. Our ability to protest, dissent and associate with groups without being held accountable for a few bad actors is what sets America apart from dictatorships and oppressive regimes.

People are not guilty by association, but laws like the one in D.C. have made everyone around “black bloc” guilty, whether they were a part of the group or not. In Wood’s video, you can see the violence and destruction was caused by a few members of the group, not all 200 of them. The prosecution is using an excessively broad law to convict innocent people.

The possible prosecution of more than 200 people is what makes this law so dangerous.

If the prosecution is successful, the fear is that other major cities will draft similar laws. Political dissent and protests in America are in danger. If every city has these collective responsibility laws, police could arrest entire protests should some people get out of hand.

These kinds of laws will stifle political gatherings and make people fearful of joining protests because they might be caught up in arrests.

The possible adoption of these laws not only threatens our freedom to protest — it threatens our freedom of the press.

Wood and Cantu each face 60 years in prison if convicted. If a federal prosecutor can successfully indict and convict a journalist for covering protests with a collective responsibility law, then this could set a precedent journalists won’t be protected by the First Amendment — should they cover riots or other violent situations.

In order to cover major events like protests, journalists are there in person reporting. They’re near protesters, talking to them, taking photographs and taking videos. Last year, Central Michigan Life reporters and photographers covered Trump’s inauguration. If they had been near the riots and tried to take photographs or interview people they could very well have been arrested and be on trial.

Collective responsibility laws make journalists members of protests. Journalism becomes a crime.

Freedom House’s report on global freedom of the press states that from 2006 to 2016 the U.S. has fallen seven places, from 16 to 23. Our freedom of the press is in danger. If Wood and Cantu are convicted, it will be in even more danger.

In the future, political protests could carry collective responsibility and journalists could be arrested for their reporting. Without reporters there, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to know the news, stay informed and learn what actually happened between protesters and police. These seemingly small, unnoticed trials and police arrests should worry everyone.

Our freedoms are in danger.