U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Sacramento Bee columnist detained at pro-Palestinian protest at City Hall

Incident Details


Sacramento Bee columnist Robin Epley was briefly detained while documenting a pro-Palestinian protest that shut down a City Council meeting at Sacramento City Hall on March 19, 2024.

March 19, 2024

Robin Epley, an opinion columnist for The Sacramento Bee, was briefly detained while documenting a protest that disrupted a Sacramento City Council meeting March 19, 2024.

In an account of the incident published by the Bee, Epley wrote that a pro-Palestinian protest in the City Council chambers began after Mayor Darrell Steinberg introduced a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Steinberg recessed the meeting and ordered the chambers to be cleared, but many people initially refused to leave.

After about 90 minutes, by 10:37 p.m., Epley wrote, only a few dozen people remained and she noticed that she was the only journalist still observing the protest. “From experience, I know that’s a rare and potentially important position; I’d never relinquish it unless absolutely necessary,” Epley wrote.

Epley told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that more than 50 police officers then entered the chambers, gave a final warning and began arresting the last 12 stragglers. Shortly after 10:50 p.m., Epley saw the officer who was overseeing the arrests point at her.

“Surely, I thought, he was motioning to someone behind me?” Epley wrote. “By the time I realized no one was there, a couple of officers had already descended on my back, ripping my cellphone from my hand and locking me in a pair of black metal cuffs.”

In footage Epley shared on social media, she can be heard asking the officers, “Are you really arresting me right now?”

Epley told the Tracker that she was wearing press credentials issued by the Bee and that she repeatedly identified herself as a journalist. After approximately 25 seconds, the officers uncuffed her and checked her press pass before allowing her to resume documenting the other arrests.

“There is no reason, no action I took, nothing I said nor did that provoked these officers of the Sacramento Police Department to handcuff me,” Epley wrote. “Their actions alone resulted in the illegal detainment of a working and visibly credentialed journalist, no matter how short the duration of my time in their custody.”

David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, told the Bee that police have no business arresting members of the press, even if only for a few seconds.

“There is a disturbing trend around the country of journalists being arrested and prosecuted simply for being journalists,” Loy said. “Whether the arrest just happened for just a few minutes or someone is prosecuted, these are clear threats to press freedom and the First Amendment.”

Epley told the Tracker that she is undaunted by the experience.

“I feel fired up,” Epley said. “I try to remind myself that when informed of their mistake they let me out of the cuffs pretty immediately. Ultimately I’m fine, but it’s the meaning of it that is making me upset, what it means to have handcuffed a journalist.”

She said that the Sacramento Police Department has reached out to the Bee to set up a meeting with editors.

The Sacramento Police Department said in an emailed statement that when the chambers were cleared they advised members of the press to stage in the lobby and that officers were instructed to look for city-issued press credentials, which it asserts Epley was not wearing.

Epley said that she wasn’t told the credentials were mandatory and that, when the lightweight pass broke, she stopped wearing it. She also refuted the police’s assertion that media were told to stage in the lobby, saying that no officers spoke with her after the meeting was recessed.

In a statement shared with the Tracker, Mayor Steinberg said that there was “some confusion” concerning Epley’s credentials and that she was immediately released once it was cleared up.

“I do not support the arrest of journalists in chambers,” Steinberg said. “It is essential that we uphold and protect the important role that the press plays in our society.”

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