Police are still arresting journalists. Why?

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

A curved brick wall with the words "Vanderbilt University" stands behind grass and bushes, with a large tree in the background

Nashville Scene reporter Eli Motycka, who was arrested while covering a student protest at Vanderbilt University, is one of at least four journalists arrested or detained while reporting on a protest so far this year. Vanderbilt University by mosesxan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Journalists Carolyn Cole and Molly Hennessy-Fiske were reporting for the Los Angeles Times on the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020, when they were brutally attacked by the Minnesota State Patrol. Last week, they settled a lawsuit against the city for $1.2 million.

It’s a welcome sign of accountability for police who violate the rights of journalists covering protests. But nearly four years after the Floyd protests led to a spike in journalists arrested and assaulted, protests remain a dangerous place for reporters.

Just a few months into 2024, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented four arrests or detentions of journalists covering protests in New York, Tennessee, and California.

None of these arrests have received much attention or public outcry. That’s a shame. These arrests violate journalists’ rights, and they undermine the right of the public to learn about newsworthy events happening in their communities.

They also show the disturbing and stubborn persistence of a system of policing that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about First Amendment rights. A closer look at each of the cases documented by the Tracker so far this year reveals that — even after large settlements or acknowledgments by the federal government that journalists must be allowed to cover protests — police around the country are still routinely arresting reporters who are simply doing their jobs.

New York arrests come as police resist settlement

New York City’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, fought tooth and nail against a settlement the city entered into last year, after being sued by photojournalists who claimed their First Amendment rights were violated while covering protests in 2020. The settlement acknowledges the right of the press to record police in public and sets rules for officers’ interactions with journalists covering protests.

The PBA says its objections are about safety. But officers keep arresting journalists who pose no safety risk to anyone, and who are simply reporting on protests. In fact, the same month the settlement was finally approved by a court, two journalists were arrested in New York City while covering protests.

On Feb. 29, independent journalist Ashoka Jegroo was nearly pushed “face-first onto the ground” and arrested while documenting a pro-Palestinian protest of remarks by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul at a Wall Street restaurant.

Jegroo was charged with disorderly conduct and walking in a roadway when a sidewalk was available. The latter charge was dismissed. But Jegroo accepted a deferred prosecution on the disorderly conduct charge, meaning that the charge will only be dismissed if he is not arrested in the next six months.

Given how common it is for the New York Police Department to arrest journalists, the possibility that another arrest could revive past charges would be a chilling prospect for any reporter, especially one, like Jegroo, who has previously been arrested while covering protests. Still, Jegroo has vowed not to let the risk of more arrests stop his journalism.

Also in New York City, podcast journalist Reed Dunlea was arrested while reporting on a pro-Palestinian protest on Feb. 10, “Police officers threw Dunlea to the ground, damaging his equipment, and charged him with resisting arrest,” the Tracker reported.

Despite showing police officers his city-issued press credential and repeatedly identifying himself as press, Dunlea was dragged into the street, pinned on his stomach, and arrested. He was eventually charged with resisting arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) called for the charges to be dropped, which they later were.

Both of these arrests show that the recent settlement that reins in police conduct toward the press is desperately needed. But with the police union’s staunch opposition to the settlement and officers’ continued aggressions toward journalists, we can’t help but wonder whether officers will actually comply with it. The NYPD must be monitored and the settlement’s terms strictly enforced to ensure that officers don’t continue to unjustly arrest reporters for documenting protests.

Tennessee ‘catch and release’ stymies coverage

Another reporter arrest in Tennessee shows how “catch and release” policies can stymie ongoing attempts by journalists to document protests and how intimidation tactics can chill future reporting.

Just last week, on March 26, Vanderbilt University Police officers arrested Eli Motycka, a reporter for the Nashville Scene, while he was covering a student protest opposing the Israel-Gaza War. Motycka was attempting to gain access to an administrative building on campus where students were holding a sit-in.

After speaking to several officers outside the building, Motycka was eventually arrested for criminal trespassing, even though he identified himself as a credentialed member of the media. Officers claimed Motycka had been previously asked to leave, which he denied.

The charges were dropped just hours later, but much of the damage was done. By arresting and removing Motycka, police effectively prevented him from reporting on the protest. And when Motycka returned to campus that afternoon, authorities made it known that he wasn’t welcome: a campus police officer followed him around until Motycka eventually left, fearing he’d be arrested again.

California detention prompts admonishment

Finally, in California, the recent detention of a Sacramento Bee reporter demonstrates the need to speak out against even brief interferences with the press by police.

Robin Epley wrote a first-person account of being detained by police on March 19, while covering a pro-Palestinian protest at a Sacramento City Council meeting. She was the only journalist in the room when police officers entered the City Council chambers and began arresting protesters who had defied orders to leave — and they handcuffed her in the process. Officers removed the handcuffs after about 25 seconds and allowed her to continue reporting.

Epley was lucky that police didn’t escalate the situation and actually arrest her. The next reporter may not be so fortunate. But Epley’s decision to write about and call attention to her detainment hopefully improves the odds. Epley ensured that elected officials and police know that the press and the public are watching. Perhaps that’s why Mayor Darrell Steinberg told the Tracker, “I do not support the arrest of journalists in chambers.”

We need more than just a single journalist speaking out about her detention, however. Arresting journalists chips away at our right to know by stopping reporting in its tracks. Settlements and official admonishments can only do so much. We need a public outcry each and every time a journalist is arrested for doing their job. These First Amendment violations won’t stop until communities make clear to elected officials and cops alike that we won’t stand for it.

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