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L.A. Times journalists sue Minnesota state troopers over attack

A journalist's equipment is in the foreground as a trooper in riot gear shoots pepper spray toward the camera.
Minnesota State Patrol officers pepper-spray and fire rubber bullets at journalists on May 2020.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

For their jobs, L.A. Times journalists Carolyn Cole and Molly Hennessy-Fiske have traveled to war zones and reported from dangerous areas including Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the veteran journalists say they never encountered anything like what happened on May 30 in Minneapolis when state troopers cornered and attacked them while they were covering a protest after the police killing of George Floyd.

This week, photographer Cole and Hennessy-Fiske, The Times’ Houston bureau chief, sued Minnesota State Patrol officers, saying they violated their 1st Amendment rights. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“I hope the lawsuit will hold accountable law enforcement who targeted the media, those of us who were doing our jobs, covering George Floyd protests in Minneapolis,” said Cole, who was pepper-sprayed and suffered a corneal abrasion in her left eye. “The attack impacted me as an individual, but it also impacted press freedoms. In my 30 years covering conflicts around the world, I was never targeted until that protest in Minneapolis. Hopefully this lawsuit will help prevent other journalists from getting hurt in the future.”

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A portrait of Carolyn Cole.
Photojournalist Carolyn Cole.
(James T. Murray)

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has not yet been officially served but is aware of the pending litigation, spokesman Doug Neville said in an e-mail. “As a matter of practice, DPS does not comment on pending litigation,” Neville wrote.

I’ve been covering conflict both nationally and internationally for many years, so I know the dangers involved. But I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly.

Many journalists, including Cole and Hennessy-Fiske, traveled to Minnesota in the spring of last year to cover the community’s reaction to the death of George Floyd, who was murdered in police custody. On May 29, 2020, Minnesota’s governor issued an emergency executive order that would enact a nighttime curfew in Minneapolis and St. Paul on May 29 and 30, but law enforcement, fire and medical personnel and news media would be exempted.

A man with press credentials around his neck runs from law enforcement in gas masks and riot gear.
Journalists flee as Minnesota State Patrol officers use rubber bullets and pepper spray on them in May 2020.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

After the curfew on May 30, Cole and Hennessy-Fiske were covering a protest when state troopers backed them and other journalists into a wall and began attacking them, according to their lawsuit. Both women were wearing their press badges and carried or wore items that identified them as journalists. Hennessy-Fiske yelled they were press and waved her press credentials as troopers approached, the lawsuit states.

The encounter soon turned violent, with state troopers pepper-spraying the group, the lawsuit alleges. Cole was pepper-sprayed in both eyes, temporarily blinding her, and Hennessy-Fiske was hit at least five times by blunt projectiles and a tear gas canister on her left leg, according to their complaint.

A portrait of Molly Hennessy-Fiske.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske is the Houston bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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The journalists later were trapped against a wall and a fence. Hennessy-Fiske was able to escape by scaling it. Cole, who had heavy photo equipment, could not do so on her own as she was blinded by the pepper spray.

The women were treated for their injuries, with Cole also suffering injuries to her back and left elbow.

“We filed the lawsuit to find out why we were attacked in the interest of transparency; to hold the agency accountable so it doesn’t happen again,” Hennessy-Fiske said.

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Minnesota state troopers have have been criticized for their treatment of journalists in other incidents. Last May, state troopers drew scrutiny after they had arrested three CNN journalists during a live broadcast.

In June, 2020, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit against Minnesota state patrol officers and other parties over the treatment of journalists.

More recently, troopers were accused of using excessive force on the media as they covered protests related to last month’s killing of Daunte Wright, the lawsuit notes.

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Hennessy-Fiske has been a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times since 2006. Her work has earned prizes including a local Emmy, the 2018 APME International Perspective Award and the 2015 Overseas Press Club award. Veteran photojournalist Cole won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for her coverage of the civil crisis in Liberia. Among numerous other awards, she’s a two-time winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club and has been named U.S. newspaper photographer of the year three times.

Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said in a statement that the company supported the lawsuit brought by Hennessy-Fiske and Cole against Minnesota State Patrol officials.

“Assaulting journalists who are in the process of reporting news in the public’s interest has no place in a functioning democracy,” Manning said in a statement. “We stand with Molly and Carolyn as they try to hold to account these law enforcement officials for violating their constitutional rights.”


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