FIRST AMENDMENT ADVOCACY

 NYPD-credentialed photojournalist Julia Xanthos, wearing a 2007 NYPD-issued press credential along with a camera, under arrest by the NYPD for doing her job.

NYPD-credentialed photojournalist Julia Xanthos, wearing a 2007 NYPD-issued press credential along with a camera, under arrest by the NYPD for doing her job.

 

I am the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, and the plaintiff in another lawsuit against the NYPD. Both lawsuits are federal civil rights actions alleging First Amendment violations, challenging Government’s power to disseminate propaganda.

In the case against Trump, Liane Nikitovich, Kristine Rakowsky and myself contest the President’s power to send Presidential Alert messages to Americans’ cellular devices that we are mandated to receive, as first reported by Politico.

We allege in our complaint that compulsory messages violate the First and Fourth Amendments, because the alert system “is tantamount to hijacking private property for the purpose of planting a Government-controlled loudspeaker in the home and on the person of every American.”

Instead, our complaint alleges, “the American people are constitutionally-entitled … to decide for themselves whether” to receive Presidential Alerts. “Just as a pamphleteer cannot compel a passerby to accept a screed, so, too, Government cannot send messages to peoples’ cellular devices without being invited to do so.”

We drafted the complaint ourselves, without a lawyer, and filed the complaint pro se. While we asked for a preliminary injunction barring a test of the Presidential Alert system scheduled for Oct. 3, 2018, our request was rejected.

However, the federal judge overseeing the case said our suit raised significant questions deserving further scrutiny and urged us to obtain legal counsel. Now represented by former NYCLU chief Norman Siegel, we expect a new hearing in the case soon.

I also filed a pro se lawsuit in 2015 against the NYPD, alleging that police restrictions on journalists’ access to news scenes amount to censorship in violation of the First Amendment right to Freedom of the Press.

The suit was prompted when New York City public relations officials and NYPD officers attempted to prevent me from photographing the rescue of an injured construction worker, because the City did not want images of injured construction workers in the news.

When I successfully obtained photographs anyway, NYPD officers revoked my NYPD press credential and said I would never be issued another. Because of the suit, however, the NYPD later agreed to return my press credential.

I continued the case to stop the NYPD from censoring news in the future, either by interfering with press access to news scenes or arbitrarily revoking press credentials. In 2017 I defeated the NYPD’s attempt to have the case dismissed, as reported by the New York Times.

That’s when Joel Kurtzberg and Merriam Mikhail of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel agreed to represent me. After conducting discovery, we moved for summary judgment in June 2018, arguing that we’ve proved our case. A decision is expected soon.

In 2011, I was arrested for photographing the rescue of a person who jumped in front of a train. Police lied and said my photography interfered with rescue efforts. My first trial ended in a hung jury, but a second jury acquitted me in minutes.

One juror, a Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union, voted to acquit, he said, because the police had acted “like they do in Russia.”

In a separate case, I extracted a $20,000 settlement from the City of New York and a former NYPD detective after again being falsely arrested while working as a photojournalist.

I taught myself the law in jail, starting while I was awaiting trial for murder in 1990 New York. A jury acquitted me of murder, but convicted me of manslaughter. Sentenced to 6 1/3 to 19 years in state prison, I worked as a law clerk and assisted other prisoners with all kind of legal matters.

When I wasn’t in the law library, I was taking college courses funded by the federal PELL grant program for poor students. But, then, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 into law, including a provision eliminating prison college programs.

Because of the Crime Bill, I became an activist, read up on constitutional law and filed a federal lawsuit alleging the elimination of prisoners from PELL grant eligibility, just because they were prisoners (as the Crime Bill did), violated the Constitution’s guarantee to equal protection.

But the federal courts in Washington, D.C. found otherwise.

Separately, in 2001, I won a years-long legal battle to establish America’s first prisoner-run, prisoners’ rights organization. That victory followed a precedent-setting Federal appeals’ court ruling in Nicholas v. Miller establishing prisoners’ right to political association and collective expression under the First Amendment.

I was paroled in 2003, and a letter of recommendation from a federal judge helped get me admitted to NYU. In the evening, I took classes; during the day, I worked as a legal researcher and investigator for Ron Kuby, the renowned civil liberties and criminal defense lawyer.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing in 2006, and went to work full-time as a news photographer for the New York Post in January 2007. I shifted to full-time news reporting in 2016.