In a series of major tests for press freedom, at least four journalists around the country are due in this court this month following their arrests while covering Black Lives Matter protests, part of the unprecedented number of legal detentions of reporters in 2020.
While the majority of the 126+ journalists arrested or detained last year were released without charges — and some who faced charges saw them dropped before trial — a number of reporters have lived under the shadow of pending charges for months.
Arrested while reporting
Reporter Andrea Sahouri was pepper-sprayed and arrested while covering a May 31, 2020, protest in Iowa for the Des Moines Register. She was charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. In October she was offered a plea deal of dropping one charge if she pled guilty to the other. She refused, maintaining a not guilty plea.
After several delays, her trial is set for March 8 and is scheduled to be held in front of students at Drake University Law School, as part of an educational exercise. In a powerful op-ed, the Des Moines Register called the charges against its reporter “a clear infringement on the freedom of the press.”
But Sahouri is far from the only journalist currently facing legal trouble for doing her job. At the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, we not only document journalists arrested in the course of their work, but track their legal plight as their cases wind through the court system. At least three others are scheduled to face trial in the next few weeks.
Freelance photojournalist Richard Cummings was documenting protests in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 1, 2020, when he was pepper-sprayed and arrested. Cummings was charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and failure to disperse during a riot. He told the Tracker that videos on his cell phone, which was taken with his camera when he was arrested, were missing when his equipment was returned.
Cummings pled not guilty during an August hearing, and on Nov. 22 a district court judge dropped two of the charges. His next court date for the remaining charge is also set for March 8.
Two other journalists, videographers Sean Beckner-Carmitchel and Vishal Singh were both arrested on Nov. 4 in Los Angeles while documenting election-related protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beckner-Carmitchel and Singh each have March 9 hearing dates for failure to disperse charges.
So far for 2020, we’ve documented 126 journalists arrested or detained, and 16 journalists — including Sahouri, Cummings, Beckner-Carmitchel and Singh — who still face pending criminal charges. In fact, Beckner-Carmitchel is still also facing charges for a separate incident, after he was detained on Nov. 3, and cited with a “pedestrian on the road” violation.
Lawsuits from journalists
On the other end of the legal docket, freelance journalist Kian Kelley-Chung is now suing the Metropolitan Police Department, acting police chief Robert Contee III and the District of Washington for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights, among other claims. Kelley-Chung was arrested while covering protests in Washington D.C. on Aug. 13, 2020, and held overnight in jail. Although police dropped felony riot charges against him, the journalist’s two cameras and cell phone were seized by law enforcement officers and were not returned for more than two months, Kelley-Chung told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Kelley-Chung’s lawsuit follows a similar lawsuit brought in Minnesota last June by reporter Linda Tirado, who was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by police during protests in May. This week Tirado’s suit has cleared an important legal hurdle as a judge has rejected arguments from both the city of Minneapolis and the now-retired head of its police union to dismiss the case. The judge wrote that injuries to Tirado and other reporters “plausibly suggest an unconstitutional custom” of police “targeting journalists for unlawful reprisals.”
Since Tracker launched in 2017, we’ve documented nearly 200 arrests, detainments or criminal charges against journalists. Eleven of those journalists, including Kelley-Chung, have in turn filed suit against their arresting authority or city.
Clarification: This post was updated to reflect that journalists Vishal Singh, Sean Beckner-Carmitchel and Richard Cummings have pending hearing dates in March, not trial dates.