INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana press entities are challenging the legality of a new state law that prohibits individuals from standing within 25 feet of a police investigation.
On Friday, the Indiana Broadcasters Association, the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as well as local press entities, filed a lawsuit in Indianapolis federal court against Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears and Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal surrounding the implementation of House Bill 1186, a law that went into effect in July.
The local press entities also involved in Friday’s lawsuit include:
- The Indianapolis Star
- Nexstar Media Inc., which owns and operates WTTV and WXIN in Indianapolis, WTWO and WAWV in Terre Haute, WANE in Fort Wayne, and WEHT and WTVW in Evansville
- Scripps Media, Inc. who owns and operats WRTV in Indianapolis
- TEGNA Inc, which operates WTHR in Indianapolis.
According to previous reports, HB 1186 makes it illegal for people to encroach on a police investigation, giving police a 25-foot buffer during an investigation. The lawsuit states that it can be a Class C misdemeanor to “knowingly or intentionally approach within 25 feet of a law enforcement officer lawfully engaged in the execution of the law enforcement’s duties after the law enforcement officer has ordered the person to stop.”
The plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana Indianapolis division, that HB 1186 authorizes law enforcement to prevent journalists from reporting on a diversity of events in a variety of locations. The plaintiffs said the act does not provide any exceptions where 25 feet may be too far for journalists to document newsworthy activity.
“The provision has grave implications for the ability of members of the news media… to exercise their First Amendment rights,” the complaint stated. “By criminalizing peaceful, nonobstructive newsgathering on matters of public importance, (HB 1186) violates the First Amendment both on its face and as applied to the plaintiffs. The act grants law enforcement officers limitless, standardless discretion to prevent journalists from approaching near enough to document the way officers perform their duties in public places.”
In the complaint, the plaintiffs bring forward examples from the coverage of the protests after George Floyd was killed in May 2020. Officials said that particular reporting “required close contact with members of law enforcement and often relied on videos or photographs captured within 25 feet of officers performing their official duties.”
Proximity is also “essential” in other contexts, the complaint reads, including at crime scenes, and in press conferences and interviews hosted by law enforcement. The plaintiffs argue that compliance with the law throughout the state is “not practically possible” for reporters, who “cannot reliably determine whether they are within 25 feet of a particular officer.”
“Whenever a journalist receives an order to withdraw while documenting law enforcement activity from a distance less than 25 feet, that journalist is put to a choice between committing a crime or forgoing reporting,” the complaint reads. “For visual journalists, 25 feet is often too far to obtain a clear line of sight to newsworthy events, especially at tumultuous public events like protests. That distance is also too great to reliably capture audio of those events.”
The complaint claims that HB 1186 is vague, a violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs state the act could authorize, and potentially encourage “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” and it fails to provide notice that will enable people to understand what conduct it prohibits.
The plaintiffs said they also believe the act violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protect “the gathering and dissemination of information of government officials performing their duties in public,” according to rulings in previous cases listed in the lawsuit.
The complaint stresses that people have a legal right to be in a public location to watch and listen to what is going on around them, if it does not interfere with law enforcement’s performance of their duties. Ultimately, the plaintiffs believe the act is a “content-based restriction on newsgathering designed to prevent members of the press and public from exercising the right to document policing.”
“Plaintiffs ask this court to issue a declaration that the act violates the constitution and an injunction against its enforcement by the defendants,” the complaint stated.
As of Friday afternoon, no responses have been filed by Rokita, Mears and Forestal in this lawsuit. This story will be updated if responses by the defendants are provided.