USA: Police must respect rights of journalists to cover protests

Four journalists have been arrested by police and four others attacked in the course of covering university campus protests in the past week. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns this wave of arrests, criminal charges, and violence against journalists and urges law enforcement agencies and school administrators to protect and respect the rights of all journalists, including student media.

Update: RSF joined other press freedom groups in a letter to the Town of Hanover prosecutor and president of Dartmouth College calling for charges against Alesandra Gonzales and Charlotte Hampton to be dropped. They were dropped soon after.

Carlos Sanchez was covering a protest against Israel’s war against Hamas at which 56 demonstrators were arrested. While none of the arrested protestors were charged due to a lack of probable cause, according to the Travis County Attorney’s Office, two misdemeanor assault charges have been filed against the journalist. According to the affidavit arrest warrant against him, police allege that Sanchez “lunged towards” a state trooper “striking him with his camera.” However, video of Sanchez’s arrest shows him filming the demonstration and police herding a group. Carlos is pulled by his backpack and violently thrown to the ground where he is arrested. Sanchez told the television station KXAN“They said that I hit an officer. I didn’t hit an officer. They were pushing me.”

The same day that Sanchez was charged, a reporter for local TV stations KRCR and KAEFAdelmi Ruiz, was detained by police on April 30 while covering a protest against Israel’s war with Hamas at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in the city of Arcata. She was released and no charges were filed.  

Student journalists become targets 

Two Dartmouth College student journalists were arrested during a protest on their university’s campus while clearly identifying themselves as members of the media on May 1. One day before that, four student journalists for the Daily Bruin were attacked as counter-protestors clashed with pro-Palestine protests on UCLA’s campus. One was hospitalized.

“As protests continue to unfold on American college campuses and beyond, police must respect the rights of journalists to cover these demonstrations. These arrests are reminiscent of the wave of press freedom violations that swept across the country in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests, suggesting that police departments failed to learn the proper lessons about the First Amendment from those protests.

Clayton Weimers
Executive Director, RSF USA

The Texas DPS did not respond to a request from RSF for comment, but said in a statement to the media, “As a law enforcement agency, upholding the laws and freedoms of the people of this state is our number one priority. The department believes strongly in a journalist’s right to cover events of the day in a safe way; however, that does not exempt a person from following the law or the rules that have been put in place for the safety of others. While the department understands the need to be on-site, it is never acceptable to interfere with official police duties and assaulting an officer of the law – no matter the degree – will never be tolerated.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety said officers responded to the university protest at the request of the university and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. 

Brazen police force used against the press

The recent series of journalist arrests follows a trend of police and lawmakers using physical force and intimidation against journalists while they cover protests and police action. 

In August 2023, police raided a newsroom in Marion, Kansas. A reporter for KJZZ in Tucson was arrested, but never charged, at a protest in Pima County, Arizona. NewsNation correspondent Evan Lambert was arrested while covering a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in February 2023. Two Asheville Blade reporters were convicted of trespassing after covering a homeless encampment in a public park in North Carolina on Christmas night 2021. 

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a record 146 arrests and charges were made against journalists in 2020, largely driven by police reactions to Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the country.

The United States is ranked 55th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2024 World Press Freedom Index.

55/ 180
Score : 66.59
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