(New York, NY) – In a series of open letters to officials in five cities across the country, PEN America chapters joined local partners Tuesday in calling on mayors and police chiefs to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters participating in demonstrations and the journalists covering those protests.

PEN America chapter leaders in Austin, Birmingham, and Tulsa are leading the letter-writing campaign to support the free expression rights of their communities during this critical national moment, working alongside local organizations including Press On, the Texas Observer, Native American Journalists Association, Alabama Rally Against Injustice, and Oklahomans for Equality. The letters targeted city officials in Austin, TX; Birmingham, Hoover, and Huntsville, AL; and Tulsa, OK.

In Austin, Tulsa, and Huntsville, police have indiscriminately used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. In Austin, journalists were also subjected to tear gas. In Birmingham, at least three journalists were taken into police custody even after identifying themselves as members of the press, and in Hoover, hundreds of peaceful protesters have been arrested. 

“Members of the media, citizen journalists, and activists have done the essential work of drawing attention to systemic anti-Black violence and of documenting the aggression and unwarranted use of force against demonstrators,” said PEN America director of national outreach Katie Zanecchia. “Mayors and police chiefs have a responsibility to their communities to ensure that the First Amendment rights of protesters and journalists are guaranteed and that they are able to safely carry out their vital work without fear of reprisal or injury.”

“The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and others are part of a long, tragic, and shameful history in the United States of anti-Black racism and its deadly consequences. That history also includes a tradition of state violence and suppression of those attempting to draw attention to these injustices,” said Zanecchia. “The response to these protests in each community is informed by its particular history and dynamics. It is vitally important to buttress national advocacy with local efforts that take these particulars into consideration and that are directly led by the communities to which the protesters and journalists bearing the brunt of these attacks belong.” 

“Because we love our city, and because we have high expectations for its leaders, we are eager to engage in meaningful conversation around the recent and necessary civil disobedience we’ve seen in response to the ongoing police brutality against Black Americans,” said PEN America Birmingham chapter leader Ashley M. Jones. “Birmingham is a city of the movement, and we are eager for our current leadership to continue, renew, and even reimagine support of that movement work.”

“The role of the press in reporting historical change as it happens from the ground is critical. Press freedom is not negotiable—it is the basis of democracy,” said PEN America Birmingham chapter leader Alina Stefanescu. “Given the extent to which US  ‘heritage’ is rooted in dispossession, displacement, and enslavement, a threat against journalists is a threat against those working for change. The voices of Black journalists should be centered, not arrested.”

PEN America also recently sent out a series of open letters to governors across the country calling upon them to protect the rights of journalists covering the protests and put an end to the targeted attacks on and arrests of the press.

  • PEN America Austin letter to Austin, TX officials
  • PEN America Birmingham letter to Birmingham, AL mayor
  • PEN America Birmingham letter to Birmingham, AL police
  • PEN America Birmingham letter to Hoover, AL officials
  • PEN America Birmingham letter to Huntsville, AL officials
  • PEN America Tulsa letter to Tulsa, OK officials