Does the First Amendment Protect Reporters From Assault?

By George Khoury, Esq. on May 31, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The First Amendment ensures that the government cannot pass any laws preventing the dissemination of news. However, reporters, journalists, and other members of the press corps, are not considered any differently than regular citizens despite the freedom of the press. This means that when a reporter is assaulted while trying to get the scoop, the perpetrators are not going to be charged with a hate crime.

Regardless of the criminal charges an attacker could face for assaulting a reporter, there are several civil actions, including potential civil rights claims, a reporter, or even just a blogger, can pursue against an attacker. When pursuing a civil action, however, the First Amendment can play a significant role, depending on the attackers identity.

Government Attacker

If a reporter is attacked, assaulted, intimidated, or threatened by a government official or representative trying to prevent information from being published, there are potential civil rights claims, in addition to the usual tort injury claims. Under 42 USC 1983, a rather broad civil rights statute, an individual can sue government officials when the officials deny the individual their constitutionally protected rights.

Traditionally, under 42 USC 1983, any individual that is attacked by a public official could potentially have recourse for a violation of their Fourth Amendment Rights. If the attack is an attempt to suppress a reporter, then the reporter will have a 42 USC 1983 claim based upon the First Amendment.

Private Citizen Attacker

When a reporter is attacked by a private citizen, the reporter will only be left with the typical tort injury claims. This includes suing the individual attacker for the intentional assault and/or battery, as well as potentially the owner or controller of the premises where the attack happened. In certain circumstances, a venue, promoter, or organizer, can be held liable for a personal attack if it can be shown that the security provided was negligent.

In addition to organizer liability for negligent security, there could also be liability against individuals that incite others to act out violently. For instance, if a presidential candidate yelled out to large rally for certain people to be forcibly removed, then people from the crowd acted and injured the victim of the removal, the speaker giving the order could potentially be held liable for the injuries.

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