Journalist settlement changes how Atlanta will treat working media members during curfews

Atlanta police officers try to stop protesters from getting too close to a Wendy's restaurant as the building is completely engulfed in flames in June 2020. The protests followed the Atlanta police killing of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks.

Lily Oppenheimer / WABE

The arrest of one photojournalist during 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta has led to changes in the way the city is expected to treat working journalists during a curfew.

The city will pay a $105,000 settlement to freelancer Sharif Hassan. Police arrested Hassan as he was taking pictures two minutes after an imposed 9 p.m. curfew went into effect, according to the federal lawsuit.

Lawyers say he was repeatedly identifying himself as a working journalist, but was forced to the ground and handcuffed. Meanwhile, lawyers say other journalists were allowed to continue working in the same area.

Hassan continued to face criminal prosecution for over six months, until the city finally dismissed his curfew violation charge. The University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic secured the settlement.

Hassan’s lawyers say the settlement includes the following language regarding consideration of media in any future curfew orders:

The parties further agree that in the event an Executive or other Order, is necessary to establish a city-wide curfew, the City Law Department may consider including in the proposed text of such Executive Order(s) that working members of the media are included in any curfew exceptions or carveouts for people engaged in work activities, for people traveling to and from work, or for essential workers, provided such working members of the media do not intentionally impede or intentionally disrupt law enforcement.

“This resolution sends an important message that First Amendment rights must be protected, including, and especially, during times of political and social upheaval,” says First Amendment Clinic Director Clare Norins.

Hassan sat down with WABE’s “Morning Edition” and said he hopes his victory in court leads to more understanding and a more clear protocol for how police interact with the media during protests.

At least two other working journalists were arrested during 2020 protests in Atlanta: Those include Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer Alyssa Pointer and Haisten Willis, a freelance journalist on assignment for The Washington Post. 

The Society of Professional Journalists condemned those arrests. City officials tell WABE the mayor’s office has no further comments.