Sarah Belle Lin, an independent journalist and photographer working in the East Bay, has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that she was shot with a rubber bullet by a City of Richmond police officer while she covered a protest over the killing of George Floyd last year in Oakland.
Lin alleges she was wearing a press badge and had a camera slung across her neck as she crossed a street near Latham Square in Oakland on May 30, 2020. She “heard multiple bullets fly around her” and one hit her in the inner thigh, knocking her to the ground and causing “intense shock and pain,” according to the filing.
She alleges she got up and began to move out of the street but was “forcibly shoved forward by police using their riot shields.” When she demanded to know who shot her, “none of the police officers responded or offered her medical assistance,” according to the complaint. While she was unable to identify the officer who fired upon her, the complaint says the City of Oakland told her it was a Richmond police officer.
She said she filed the complaint in order “to identify the officer who shot her” and to hold the police accountable.
Lin alleges that as a result of the injury, she was unable to walk for weeks without suffering excruciating pain. A photograph included in the complaint shows what appears to be a multi-colored bruise the size of a dinner plate on a woman’s thigh.
Rubber bullets belong to a category of devices and weapons generally called “less than lethal,” but nevertheless are capable of sometimes causing severe injury, particularly if the target is struck in the eye or throat.
The complaint, filed Feb. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges Richmond police were involved because Oakland called for “mutual aid” from other agencies like Richmond’s.
Lin’s suit requests damages for the violation of her right under the First Amendment, as a member of the press, to report the news. The First Amendment provides, in addition to its well-known protection for free speech and the exercise of religion, that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Branzburg v. Hayes in 1972 that newsgathering is protected by the First Amendment, the scope of that protection is not always clear. Members of the media do not enjoy greater protection in gathering information than other members of the public and are not permitted to break the law to report the news, according to a guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national organization that provides pro bono lawyers to protect the newsgathering rights of journalists.
A reporter covering a protest in a public space is generally allowed to access the public streets and sidewalks while covering the unfolding events. The question of whether individuals have the right to photograph and videotape police activity has not been resolved in the U.S. Supreme Court, but “six federal appellate courts have recognized this constitutional right to record, reflecting a growing consensus on the matter,” according to the guide.
Lin’s journalism portfolio contains stories published in a variety of East Bay publications. She announced the filing of her suit on Twitter.
Richmond’s city attorney did not respond immediately to a request for comment.