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US Attorney Jessie Liu

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorneys Office
District of Columbia
555 4th St NW,
Washington, DC 20530

November 13, 2017

Dear US Attorney Jessie Liu,

We call on you to end the prosecutions of Aaron Cant and Alexei Wood. Both Cant

and Wood are journalists who were covering a protest march on Inauguration Day 2017, in

Washington, DC. They face a number of charges, including engaging in a riot, conspiracy to riot,

inciting a riot, and property damage. Since some of the charges are felonies, they face

potentially decades in prison. Cant and Wood were arrested and charged for simply doing their

jobs as reporters. Their prosecution endangers press freedom in the United States.

On January 20, 2017, some individuals allegedly engaged in property destruction during

a protest. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which was present at the time, did not

immediately respond, but continued to follow the march. About 30 minutes into the march, the

MPD engaged in a mass arrest of everyone in the vicinity of the protest. Well over 200 people in

total were arrested, including several journalists attempting to cover the event. According to a

report from the DC Office of Police Complaints (OPC), it seems that proximity to the area where

property damage occurred was a primary factor in the arrests.1 It was during this arrest the

Cant and Wood were swept up, along with other journalists, legal observers, and protesters

who had not damaged any property.

OPC Monitoring of the Inauguration January 20, 2017 Report and Recommendations of the Police
1

Complaints Board to Mayor Muriel Bowser, The Council of the District of Columbia, and Interim Police
Chief of Police Peter Newsham at page 8.
Indiscriminate mass arrests such as these are troubling for a variety of reasons, but they

pose special dangers to a free press. Journalists have a responsibility to cover events that are

of national importance, particularly political protests. Threatening journalists with arrest both

impedes their ability to do so and sends a chilling message to others attempting to cover

political dissent. Journalists also serve as an important check on law enforcement. By

documenting law enforcements response to protest, journalists help to expose the use of

excessive force or other tactics that curtail the First Amendment right to assemble. According to

the OPC, the MPD may have indiscriminately and without warning deployed pepper spray and

stingers, an explosive device the (sic) releases smoke, rubber pellets, and a chemical irritant

within a radius of approximately 50 feet into crowds of people during the protest.2

The arrests of the journalists would have been bad enough, but prosecutors immediately

pursued felony rioting charges against everyone arrested. While the charges against the other

journalists arrested were eventually dropped, Cant and Wood remain charged.3 It is unclear

what lead to this discrepancy.

While the charges relate to destruction of property, the prosecution has never alleged

that everyone charged personally participated in such destruction. Instead, merely being

present seems to be the crime.

This criminalization of everyone attending the same assembly is deeply troubling, but in

the case of Cant and Wood it raises special concerns for press freedom. In order to cover

these newsworthy events, journalists have to be present. As the march progressed down city

streets, journalists would have to follow it and move in proximity to it in order to cover it. Yet,

2
Ibid, at page 4.
3
Initially, those arrested were charged with one count of felony engaging in a riot. An April 8, 2017
superseding indictment brought 8 felony charges, including engaging in a riot, conspiracy to riot, inciting a
riot, and property damage. On November 1, 2017 a judge reduced the engaging in a riot and conspiracy
to riot from felonies to misdemeanors.
because of this proximity prosecutors are arguing that journalists are not only guilty of property

damage committed by at most a handful of individuals in a march the journalists sought to

cover, but guilty of conspiracy to riot and inciting a riot. Under such a theory, the very act of

journalism is criminalized.

Prosecutors have further threatened journalistic freedom by attempting to seize data

stored on Cants cellphone.4 While this search has been unsuccessful, the government stated

that it was planning on making further attempts to search the phone and seize evidence from

it. That would give the government access to the private information and communications of a

journalist.

Police actions on January 20, 2017 and the subsequent decision of prosecutors to seek

mass felony charges have troubling implications for political expression. Including Cant and

Wood in those mass charges is in essence a criminalization of journalism and will have

far-reaching and deleterious effects on press freedom in the United States.

We urge you to respect press freedom and drop the charges against Cant and Wood.

Sincerely,

Defending Rights & Dissent


Free Press
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Media in the Public Interest
Pen America
Public News Service
The Nation Institute
RootsAction.org
Restore The Fourth
X-Lab

4
Per a court filing on October 27, 2017