L.A. Times, media coalition oppose L.A. lawsuit to claw back police photos from journalist

A police officer, seen from behind
The city of Los Angeles has sued a local journalist and an activist group after officials accidentally released photos of undercover officers through a public records request.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A coalition of media organizations including the Los Angeles Times threw its support Wednesday behind a local journalist and a group of local activists who were sued by the city of Los Angeles last month after publishing photographs of LAPD officers that the city itself had provided.

Joining a chorus of constitutional and media rights scholars, the media coalition denounced the city’s lawsuit against Knock LA journalist Ben Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition as a blatant violation of their 1st Amendment rights and a dangerous attack on press freedoms more broadly.

“An order of the kind the City seeks here would set a dangerous precedent that will undermine the news media’s ability to freely disseminate lawfully obtained information to the public,” the coalition said in a legal motion seeking to register its outside opposition to the city’s lawsuit.


“Granting the City’s request would encourage future lawsuits of this kind,” the group wrote, “chilling the dissemination of important information in records obtained through public records requests, and undercutting the vital role of journalists in our society.”

The coalition asked the court to reject the city’s efforts to claw back the photographs, which have already been widely disseminated online. It also asked the court to grant requests from Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying for the lawsuit to be tossed under California’s anti-SLAPP laws, which are designed to protect people from frivolous lawsuits over constitutionally protected activity.

The media coalition is being led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and includes The Times and the union that represents Times journalists. It also includes the Associated Press, E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Co., Nextstar Media, Southern California Public Radio, the Los Angeles Press Club, various journalism associations, unions and 1st Amendment organizations, and other small and nonprofit newsrooms.

City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto’s office declined to comment Wednesday. It has previously said its goal in filing the lawsuit was to protect officers “whose lives and families’ lives could be in grave danger as a result of this exposure.”

Camacho, a Knock LA photo editor, said in a statement that the media coalition’s support was “essential” to combat “a shameful attempt at unconstitutional censorship and an example of elected officials relinquishing their leadership.”

Hamid Khan, lead coordinator of Stop LAPD Spying, said he appreciated “the journalist community coming out strong in support of us, defending our right — our 1st Amendment right — to speech.”


The case is not just about police records being available to the public but about “the whole idea of public records” in general, Khan said.

“Who do they ultimately belong to? That’s exactly what our fight is.”

The city gave the photographs to Camacho as a result of a public records request he filed and then fought in court to have fulfilled. After receiving the records, Camacho published them online and provided a flash drive containing them to Stop LAPD Spying, which published them on a website it created called

The launch of the website caused an uproar among LAPD officers and the union that represents them, which alleged that the release of the photographs had comprised the safety of officers working undercover and in other sensitive assignments. Some of those officers sued the city, alleging their families had also been placed in danger.

The city, in turn, sued Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying, saying that it had inadvertently provided the photographs of undercover officers and those assigned to sensitive roles and wanted them back.

The city asked the court to order Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying to return the images of officers in sensitive roles, to take them off the internet, and to forgo publishing them in the future.

The case, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, is pending.

Experts in 1st Amendment and media rights law roundly rejected the lawsuit as meritless, saying that any court order granting the city’s demands would amount to an unlawful “prior restraint” on the publication of clearly newsworthy material obtained legally.


Jennifer Nelson, senior staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, echoed that point Wednesday, saying the city was asking for “an extraordinary remedy” that would obviously represent prior restraint — and violate established law.

“If the city could get an order like this, it could really present a lot of problems in future cases,” she said. “It could end up with a real chilling effect on important journalism if the city could go out and just seek to claw back records that have already been provided to a journalist.”

Mayor Karen Bass has previously declined to weigh in on the lawsuit, though she has denounced the release of the officers’ pictures — as has LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

Jeffrey Glasser, a Times attorney, said the city’s attempt to get a court order allowing the LAPD’s “neighboring law enforcement agency,” the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, to seize records the city had itself released was unconstitutional.

“Many courts have recognized that you cannot force the press and public to return previously disclosed government records,” he said, “even where the records were disclosed by mistake.”

Matt Pearce, a Times reporter and president of Media Guild of the West — which represents unionized journalists at The Times, the Southern California News Group and other newsrooms — called the city’s lawsuit “a disturbing abuse of the 1st Amendment and the Constitution of California,” and one that “deserves to be opposed.”