U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Tennessee reporter arrested while covering student protest against Israel-Gaza war

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 26, 2024

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Unnecessary use of force?

Nashville Scene reporter Eli Motycka was arrested by Vanderbilt University Police while reporting on a student sit-in at the Tennessee campus on March 26, 2024. The trespassing charge against him was dropped later that day.

March 26, 2024

Eli Motycka, a reporter for the alternative newsweekly Nashville Scene, was arrested while covering a student protest at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee on March 26, 2024. The trespassing charge against the journalist was dropped after a few hours.

Motycka told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he arrived on campus around noon to report on an ongoing sit-in student protesters were holding at the Kirkland Hall administrative building in opposition to the Israel-Gaza war.

The Vanderbilt Hustler, the university’s student-run newspaper, reported that the demonstrators were calling on the administration to allow the student government to vote on participating in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

After calling and texting his press contacts at the university for comment, Motycka told the Tracker he went to one of the doors of the hall and spoke with a Vanderbilt University Police Department officer standing guard there.

“I asked if I could go inside, after identifying myself as a journalist. He told me that he was under orders not to let anyone in and that he wished he could let me in but he couldn’t,” Motycka said. “I went to other doors and talked to at least four officers and each of them told me different things: Some told me there was construction going on, some told me that the building was closed, some told me that they might be able to let me in later.”

After his colleague, photographer Hamilton Matthew Masters, arrived on campus, Motycka said he spoke to a final VUPD officer through a door and asked who he should contact for comment or about being granted access to the building. He said that at no point was he told to leave.

At approximately 1:30 p.m., two officers approached the journalists, ordered Motycka to put his hands behind his back and told him he was under arrest for criminal trespassing.

In footage of the arrest captured by Masters, an officer can be heard telling Motycka that he had previously been told to leave under threat of arrest, which Motycka disputed.

“No, I haven’t been warned,” Motycka says. “I am here doing my job and I will happily leave, if someone warns me that I’m in danger of trespassing, to avoid all of this.”

The officers allowed Masters to take all of Motycka’s belongings before escorting him to a VUPD vehicle.

“I’m a credentialed member of the media. I’m a reporter for the Nashville Scene. I wasn’t warned today that I’d be taken off of this campus in handcuffs,” Motycka says in Masters’ footage. “I was here interviewing students. I was here witnessing a protest. And now it’s about me, I guess.”

Motycka told the Tracker that he was taken to the Downtown Detention Center, where he was processed and fingerprinted. He was released shortly after 4 p.m. after a public defender informed him that Judicial Magistrate Timothy Lee had determined there was no probable cause and dropped the charges.

In a statement to the Scene, Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk said, “This office will not prosecute a journalist for peacefully doing his or her job.”

Motycka’s arresting officer drove him back to campus soon after, Motycka said. The officer said he believed the arrest was justified and told Motycka that he would risk further arrest if he returned to campus without a legitimate purpose and authorization from the administration.

A different VUPD officer began following Motycka once he was returned to campus, he told the Tracker. Unclear whether Motycka could be rearrested, his editor advised him to leave.

In a written statement to the Tracker, a Vanderbilt University spokesperson said that Kirkland Hall was on lockdown and police were on “high alert” when Motycka repeatedly attempted to enter the building.

“It has long been the practice of Vanderbilt University to grant access to members of the media who request and receive clearance to be on campus,” the statement said. “In yesterday’s case, though the reporter made his presence known, he did not have permission to access locked administrative buildings, which are on private property.”

Motycka told the Tracker that he had never been told he needed clearance to be on campus. He added that while there are no pending charges, he is concerned about his ability to continue reporting on the university and the broader chilling effect of his arrest.

“I definitely feel intimidated to go back to campus, because I’m not sure of whether and where I can and can’t be to do my job,” he told the Tracker. “I think it functions as an act of intimidation against the press and has a cooling effect on all reporters in Nashville who may want to report on Vanderbilt, who now feel that they could be arrested without warning.”

D. Patrick Rodgers, the editor-in-chief of the Scene, expressed his dismay over Motycka’s arrest and his support for Motycka, Masters and Scene reporter Kelsey Beyeler for their coverage of the protests.

“It's alarming and disappointing that Vanderbilt University — with so many eyes on them as a result of ongoing student protests — would arrest a reporter in the process of doing his job,” Rodgers said. “We’ll have more coverage in the days to come.”

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