U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Journalists pepper-sprayed, threatened and harassed at campus protests

Incident Details

Date of Incident
April 17, 2024
Location
Multiple
Targets
Media

Other Incident

REUTERS/David Dee Delgado

Columbia University students gather at a pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the New York City campus on April 29, 2024. Journalists reporting on similar encampments across the country faced chemical irritants, harassment, threats and restricted access.

— REUTERS/David Dee Delgado
April 17, 2024

Following the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, and Israel’s resulting monthslong war in Gaza, protests have erupted across the United States — and the globe — calling for a cease-fire. Some of the loudest voices have come from U.S. campuses. On April 17, 2024, protesters at Columbia University in New York City set up an encampment on campus, inspiring similar demonstrations nationwide, with students occupying campus buildings or erecting encampments to demand that administrations divest from weapons manufacturers and Israeli-owned companies. As professional and student journalists alike have worked to document these demonstrations, they have been exposed to chemical irritants, harassed by both protesters and counterprotesters, and subject to restrictions enacted by campus authorities or law enforcement. Below is a roundup of such incidents, grouped by campus. This collection will be updated as additional incidents are verified.

A full accounting of incidents in which members of the press were assaulted, arrested or had their equipment damaged while covering these protests can be found here. To learn more about how the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documents and categorizes violations of press freedom, visit https://pressfreedomtracker.us/about/.


Columbia University

April 20, 2024

  • Independent photographer Madison Swart told the Tracker that while documenting a rally outside campus, New York City police officers forced her and other members of the press further and further back from the university gates ahead of making arrests. She said the decision to do so seemed random, and that she had never seen officers push press photographers as far back as they did that night.

April 30, 2024

  • The Columbia Spectator, the university’s student-run newspaper, published a letter from the editors detailing how its staff was denied access or harassed by law enforcement while they attempted to document the clearing of Hamilton Hall. Pro-Palestinian protesters had occupied the administrative building early that morning, following the April 18 sweep of the campus encampment that resulted in the arrests of over 100 demonstrators. Isabella Ramírez, editor-in-chief and president, and Esha Karam, managing editor and vice president, wrote that when the campus first went under complete lockdown, they and countless other journalists were stuck outside. Ramírez, Karam and two other Spectator journalists were eventually allowed to return to campus after speaking to the university’s Office of Public Affairs. As New York City police officers advanced on Hamilton Hall, however, they reported that police pushed them further and further from the building. Once the journalists were approximately 400 feet away and near John Jay Hall, where they had left their belongings, officers prevented them from entering the building, instead forcing them off campus via the nearby exit at 114th Street near Amsterdam Avenue.

    One block away, at 114th Street and Broadway, police argued with two other Spectator reporters about whether they were indeed journalists, with the officers reportedly “jeering at their makeshift press passes.” In the middle of the block, an officer grabbed another Spectator journalist by the shoulder to move her out of the way while ordering everyone off the street. Another student journalist in the same area was shoved twice, grabbed and pushed to the side by an NYPD officer.

    Another group of Spectator journalists were standing on the bridge over Amsterdam Avenue near Columbia Law School when officers rushed at the crowd, threatening arrest. “Officers mocked our journalists and told them to run, swearing at them and laughing as students bolted away in panic,” the editors reported. The officers then chased the reporters until a university public safety officer intervened.
  • Şeyma Bayram, a fellow at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, reported on social media that she was among the journalists prevented from covering the raid on Hamilton Hall and was removed from campus.
  • Olga Fedorova, a freelance photojournalist, and other members of the press were ordered to leave the area around Hamilton Hall under threat of arrest. At around 9:30 p.m., New York City police officers advanced on the building and began arresting the protesters outside. In footage Fedorova posted to social media a few days later, an officer can be heard telling the journalists, “Get out! Guys, I’m asking you to leave. Now. Now! Get off the stairs!” A second officer can also be heard threatening them with arrest if they don’t comply.

Fordham University

May 1, 2024

  • Independent reporter Katie Smith recorded as university staff hung a tarp over the window of a campus building to block the press and the public’s view of a protest encampment as New York City police officers prepared to make arrests. New York Focus reported that a few dozen students had erected the encampment inside the building earlier that morning and the tarp wasn’t big enough to block the entire window.

Harvard University

May 10, 2024

  • A student journalist for The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student-run newspaper, was sent an “involuntary leave of absence notice,” alongside 20 students whom the Harvard administration identified as having remained in the student encampment. The Crimson reported that the students who were issued notices would not be able to finish their exams or remain on campus, and were functionally trespassed from the campus. The Crimson’s leadership alerted Harvard College officials that they had issued a notice to a freshman reporter who had been on assignment covering the encampment and had not participated in the protest. The College retracted the notice and apologized for the error, but did not offer an explanation for how the mistake was made.

New York University

April 22, 2024

  • Samson Tu, a photojournalist for the student newspaper Washington Square News, was pepper-sprayed while reporting on student protests on NYU’s campus. “I was documenting the use of barricades to block police access when I was sprayed,” Tu said. “I did not intend nor did I interfere with police instructions.” He told the Tracker that he was not wearing his New York City press corps credential at the time, and didn’t think the New York police officers targeted him as a journalist.

The City College of New York

April 30, 2024

  • An unidentified journalist was pepper-sprayed while reporting on protests on the campus that day. In a video shared online, the journalist can be seen receiving treatment, with individuals instructing him to keep blinking while they pour water over his face. Another person, who appears to be holding a professional camera and wearing a press credential, can be seen supporting the man receiving treatment and heard thanking those providing aid. The Tracker was unable to identify the journalists. NYCity News Service, a student news service out of the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, reported that university public safety officers deployed a cloud of pepper spray against protesters at close range.

University of California, Los Angeles

April 30, 2024

  • Anna Dai-Liu, a student journalist for UCLA’s student newspaper the Daily Bruin, reported on social media that she was “gassed” within minutes of entering Dickson Plaza, where pro-Palestinian protesters had erected an encampment at the heart of campus. A group of approximately 100 pro-Israeli counterprotesters attempted to storm the encampment that day, the Bruin reported, tearing down the barricades surrounding it, shooting fireworks inside and releasing chemical irritants.

May 2, 2024

  • Three Daily Bruin photographers were threatened with arrest by California Highway Patrol officers while documenting the police sweep of the encampment early that morning. The officers ordered the photojournalists to leave, despite the fact they were carrying press passes signed by the university police, as well as letters from Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications Mary Osako granting them access to a building on campus to aid in their reporting.

University of Southern California

May 5, 2024

  • Student journalists for Annenberg Media were prevented from covering the Los Angeles Police Department’s clearing and destruction of the pro-Palestinian protest encampment on campus early that morning. The student-led news platform reported that officers established a “press staging area” outside an auditorium several hundred feet from the encampment.

    Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan, an editor for Annenberg Media, told TheWrap that officers pushed student journalists beyond the point where they could see what was happening. “We tried to set up, we tried to ask them multiple times, but they kept pushing media towards the back, towards the end, where we really couldn’t see anything,” Khan said. “We really had to sort of put ourselves at risk, actually, to sort of go towards the front so we could document.”

    Annenberg Media reporter Makayla Idelburg, who was with Khan that night, recorded as officers ordered her to return to the staging area or leave campus. One of the officers can be heard saying, “If you mouth off, we’re going to go ahead and treat you like the protesters. Act like the media.”
  • Jeremy Lindenfeld, a freelance reporter, was also among the members of the press ordered back to a media staging area hundreds of feet away from the encampment. An officer can be heard telling him to go there “before you get hit by an officer.” Lindenfeld also filmed as USC Journalism professor Alan Mittelstaedt argued with an officer about the staging area being hundreds of feet from the encampment as he and multiple other journalists were ordered to remain on the far side of the auditorium.
  • Freelance journalist Jon Peltz was first directed out of view of the encampment and then off campus. In footage he posted on social media, officers direct the crowd — which appears to consist of protesters, legal observers and members of the press — to “leave the area.” The crowd appears to be ushered through the gate of a wrought iron fence that is then closed behind them.

University of Texas at Austin

April 29, 2024

  • Maryam Ahmed, a senior news reporter for the student newspaper The Daily Texan, posted on social media that she was pepper-sprayed and had a flash-bang grenade “knock out” her eardrums while reporting on the protests on the UT Austin campus. In her coverage of law enforcement’s dismantling of the protest encampment on April 29, she wrote that university police officers issued their first dispersal order shortly after 1 p.m. Department of Public Safety officers arrived on campus shortly after, and law enforcement began making the first arrests at 1:45 p.m. Just under three hours later, Ahmed wrote, officers began pepper-spraying protesters and set off two flash-bang grenades.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].