Student journalists pepper sprayed, threatened with arrest after identifying themselves as media in Columbus

June 1, 2020

Three journalists from The Lantern, the Ohio State University student newspaper, were pepper sprayed and threatened with arrest by police officers while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio, on June 1, 2020. The three students clearly and repeatedly identified themselves as members of the media before the assault, according to interviews with the journalists and video footage of the incident.

The protests were held in response to a video showing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Protests against police violence and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have been held across the U.S. since the end of May.

On the night of June 1, Lantern editors Sarah Szilagy, Max Garrison, and Maeve Walsh were covering peaceful protests that had moved from the Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus toward the Ohio State University campus. About 20 minutes after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, the protesters reached the intersection of North High Street and Lane Avenue on the edge of campus.

Up until this point, the journalists had not noticed a police presence. A few minutes after reaching the intersection, however, police cars suddenly arrived and stopped behind the protesters, Garrison and Walsh told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Police officers got out of their cars, walked swiftly through the crowd, and began using pepper spray to disperse the protesters, they said. The three journalists, who were standing behind a concrete barrier on the sidewalk, somewhat removed from the protesters in the street, remained on the scene as the protesters left, Garrison and Walsh told the Tracker. Szilagy, the Lantern’s campus editor, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

The journalists were then “approached from multiple directions by police officers telling them to ‘go home’ because of the curfew,” according to an account of the incident Garrison wrote for The Lantern.

“Our reporters continued to film and identify themselves as members of the news media, who are exempt from the curfew,” wrote Garrison, who is the assistant campus editor. “A group of police officers continued to yell over our reporters, saying they ‘don’t care’ and ‘get inside.’ The officers also threatened our reporters with arrest.”

Walsh, special projects editor, told the Tracker that all three journalists were holding their press passes in the air to show them to the officers and repeatedly identified themselves as press. In a video Walsh posted to Twitter, an officer tells her, “Leave or you’re going to jail.” When Walsh responds, “we’re members of the media,” the officer says, “I don’t care.”

Another group of officers approached and “got very close to us,” according to Garrison, forcing them to step back. Garrison said one officer pushed him. Another shot pepper spray at the group from point-blank range, hitting him on the arm and Szilagy in the eyes, Garrison said. Walsh was not directly hit, but said the gas made her cough.

In a video of the incident The Lantern posted to Twitter, the journalists are pepper sprayed after repeatedly identifying as media who are “exempt from curfew.”

Adam Cairns, a staff photographer with the Columbus Dispatch, witnessed the attack. Cairns told the Tracker that he had been standing near the edge of the intersection with the student journalists, but turned to walk away before another officer came around the corner and shot pepper spray at the journalists. “[I] will attest that they were screaming at the cops that they were media,” Cairns posted to Twitter. “Police, despite clearly seeing press credentials, did not care. I crossed Lane at that point and missed the pepper spray.”

The three journalists turned to flee but were followed by an officer who fired pepper spray at their backs before they turned into an alley, according to Garrison. They then sought refuge nearby at the house of their editor, Sam Raudins, where they spent several hours recovering. None of them returned to the protests that night. “They basically just censored us,” Szilagy told The Washington Post, “and made us incapable of covering other things that happened that night.”

In the hours following the attack, Raudins sent an email to the Columbus Division of Police reporting the incident. “This was not our team getting caught in the crossfire; this was a direct interaction between CPD and The Lantern,” she wrote in the letter posted to Twitter.

In a press conference the following day, Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan was asked about the police officers’ treatment of journalists.

“There’s no malice involved, there’s no intent, it’s just a very chaotic situation,” Quinlan said. “And in that regard, I’d ask the public to have some patience and please comply, and we’ll work it out afterward. But please don’t stand there and argue; move along and comply and we’ll fix this after the fact so nothing bad happens.”

Quinlan also said, “we are dealing with imperfect human beings in imperfect situations. Mistakes will happen and we will take action to correct them and make sure that we do not allow our mistakes to be repeated.”

When asked specifically about the incident involving the Ohio State student journalists, Chief Quinlan said the reporters were not easily recognizable as news media, but the department had launched an internal affairs investigation of the officers, the Dispatch reported.

“We are aware of the incident in question and it is currently under investigation per our use of force policy,” Sergeant James Fuqua, public information officer, said in response to the Tracker’s request for a status update.

In a separate incident on the evening of June 1, two journalists with public radio station WOSU said they were threatened with pepper spray by a Columbus police officer.

Reporter Paige Southwick Pfleger and All Things Considered host Clare Roth were covering the protests in the downtown area when they saw reports on social media of the attack on the student journalists, Pfleger said. By the time the WOSU reporters arrived at the intersection of North High Street and Lane Avenue at around 10:45 p.m., Pfleger said most of the crowd had dispersed. Pfleger said she saw one individual on the ground being arrested and a group of more than a dozen police officers.

As the two journalists reached the intersection, Pfleger said several police officers approached them and told them to leave. Pfleger, who was holding her WOSU media badge in her hand to show the officers, replied that they had a right to be there as members of the media.

According to Pfleger, the officer told them, “You have to go one block down. If I have to tell you again I'm going to hose you.” A different officer, who was about a foot away from the journalists, then raised a can of pepper spray at their eye level and told them to leave immediately, Pfleger said. As the women walked away from the scene, the officer followed them for half a block and continued to threaten them with the pepper spray, Pfleger said.

In a video Pfleger posted to Twitter, an officer is shown following them with the pepper spray canister raised in his hand. Pfleger is heard saying, “I’m sorry what was that threat? We’re members of the media, you have no right, and we’re walking away.” The officer then turned around and left.

Roth also tweeted about the incident. “Being threatened with a tear gas canister is a new one.”

WOSU published an account of the incident the next day but did not seek an official response from the Columbus Division of Police, according to Pfleger.

The Columbus Division of Police did not respond to the Tracker’s request for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is documenting several hundred incidents of journalists assaulted, arrested, struck by crowd control ammunition or tear gas or had their equipment damaged while covering Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Find these incidents here.

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

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