Prosecutors must drop charges against Oregon journalist

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Shortly after taking this photo of Portland Police Bureau officers preparing to advance on protesters at Portland State University, independent journalist Alissa Azar was arrested on a charge of criminal trespass. Photo courtesy of Alissa Azar.

Prosecutors in Oregon are pursuing petty trespassing charges against Alissa Azar, a journalist who police unnecessarily arrested while responding to a protest at Portland State University earlier this month.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because another Oregon journalist, April Ehrlich, is currently suing the City of Medford and several law enforcement officers for violating her First and Fourth amendment rights when they arrested her while she reported on their efforts to clear a homeless encampment.

Get Notified. Take Action.

Ehrlich’s violent arrest attracted unwanted national attention and condemnation from major news outlets and press freedom advocates. Then, after stubborn prosecutors spent two years and plenty of tax dollars pursuing the case, a judge dismissed it shortly before her trial was to begin.

Now the only trial involving Ehrlich will be the adjudication of her lawsuit, set for November. She has an excellent chance of prevailing, as will Azar if she eventually sues — as she should.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which hears federal cases from Oregon, made clear in 2020, despite objections from the Department of Justice, that journalists are entitled to lawfully cover protests and their aftermath. That applies regardless of whether protesters who allegedly break laws are dispersed.

Azar was arrested on May 2 as she attempted to cover officers clearing an encampment at Portland State. Trespassing charges against journalists arrested at protests are usually quickly dropped, but Azar’s case remains pending, with a hearing set for June 7. That may be because — as often occurs with violations of independent journalists’ rights — her case hasn’t drawn nearly as much attention as it should.

She told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that an officer first shoved her to the ground while she was filming in front of the police line. “I kept getting pushed with the baton and they were telling me to get back even though at that point it was physically impossible,” she said.

Police retreated, but soon returned. Azar told the Tracker that she was standing with a group of journalists, wearing press credentials issued by the National Press Photographers Association, when officers began making arrests.

Video she recorded shows an officer telling her to “leave.” But without giving her any time to do so, he then says “You’re under arrest” and threatens to use force against her if she resists.

What’s worse, she may have been targeted. She said officers whispered to each other and stared at her before arresting her, and then afterward made comments about "our time together in 2020," when she covered that year’s protests following George Floyd’s murder.

There is no indication that Azar posed a threat to police or anyone or that she broke any laws other than the dispersal order. She is charged only with trespassing. But courts tolerate restrictions on reporters’ access to public land like state college campuses only in exceptional circumstances, like serious public safety risks. Even then, restrictions must be narrow enough to avoid unduly interfering with newsgathering.

Recent unrest compounds the need for the press to cover crackdowns on protests. Even the DOJ has changed its tune on the issue. In its report on the Minneapolis Police Department’s 2020 abuses, it proclaimed that “blanket enforcement of dispersal orders and curfews against press violates (First Amendment principles) because they foreclose the press from reporting about what happens after the dispersal or curfew is issued, including how police enforce those orders.”

And while journalists’ right of access at protests had been debated before the 9th Circuit and DOJ settled the issue, nobody disputes that it’s unconstitutional to arrest journalists in retaliation for past reporting.

Azar should be commended, not prosecuted, for exercising her right to gather important news up close rather than waiting for self-serving official spin. Prosecutors should drop the charges against her without delay. And the officers who arrested her should be held accountable — both in the court of public opinion and the court of law.

Donate to support press freedom

Your support is more important than ever.

Read more about Protests

‘From Bylines to Behind Bars’: Journalists arrested covering protests

We spoke with two experts about the alarming spike in arrests and detentions of journalists covering protests over the Israel-Gaza war

Settlement hasn’t stopped NYPD’s press abuses at protests

‘Catch and release’ arrests, kettling are among the problematic practices employed by officers responding to Israel-Gaza war protests

California police violate press freedom law ‘right and left’ during protests

UC Irvine law school professor explains how California law is supposed to protect journalists covering demonstrations