- Published On
- December 20, 2022
- Written by
- Stephanie Sugars from Freedom of the Press Foundation
Eight journalists detained over one weekend of reproductive rights protests this summer
Update: Shortly after this report was published, the Tracker confirmed the detainments of three additional journalists, bringing the total known arrests and detainments of journalists in 2022 to 15. Two-thirds occurred at protests. This article was updated on Jan. 5, 2023.
On a Friday this June, the Supreme Court handed down its highly anticipated ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, sparking demonstrations across the country. By the end of that weekend, eight journalists would be detained while covering back-to-back days of national protests.
Those summer arrests make up the majority of all arrests of journalists in 2022, as documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Shortly after the Dobbs ruling was announced, independent videographer Sean Beckner-Carmitchel went to cover planned demonstrations in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square. He told the Tracker he filmed as the demonstrators blocked the highway, marched through downtown and clashed with police.
“At that point, I saw officers in a line starting to move toward us and I realized a kettle was coming,” Beckner-Carmitchel said. “But because things had gotten so intense, I decided not to run.”
Los Angeles Police Department officers encircled the crowd using a tactic called kettling, detaining at least five journalists, including Beckner-Carmitchel. He and others were released without charges after approximately 45 minutes.
Protests continued across the nation the following day. Three more journalists were detained in Phoenix during a demonstration at the Arizona Capitol after individuals pulled down part of the fence erected around the building. Photographer Jack Sorgi told the Tracker dozens of troopers swarmed the crowd and ordered everyone to the ground. He kneeled and held his press credentials in front of him.
“Get all of the way down man, all the way down,” a state trooper told him. “I don’t care what your pass says.”
Sorgi laid down on his stomach and attempted to continue filming, but was told by the trooper to get his hands on the ground as well.
“He grabbed the lens hood of my camera and forced it all the way to the concrete,” Sorgi said.
Six months later, the photojournalist said he still thinks about that night and how things could have gone differently.
“I need to be where things happen, regardless of what ends up happening to me,” Sorgi said. “I might be detained, I might be tear gassed, I might be pepper sprayed, I might be handcuffed or zip-tied, but I’m there to document and I need to be there to witness things.”
Overall, the 15 journalists arrested or detained throughout 2022 is far fewer than the number arrested in 2021 — and far, far fewer than in 2020 — due in large part to fewer national protests. Yet every arrest of a journalist has consequences for the free press. While detained, journalists lose their ability to freely cover the story; criminal charges mean journalists face the threat of fines, prison time — or both.
The threat of looming charges
At least 18 journalists in the Tracker database still face charges for arrests dating back to 2017, ranging from obstructing a police officer to trespassing to engaging in a riot.
This October, Derek Myers, editor-in-chief of the Scioto Valley Guardian in Ohio, was arrested under a rare wiretapping charge — a fourth-degree felony — after publishing audio of witness testimony from an ongoing trial.
Myers told the Tracker he was covering the murder trial but was not in the courtroom when a key witness took the stand. Despite the judge in the case barring recordings of that witness, Myers later received audio of the testimony. After the Guardian published the audio, officers obtained a search warrant for Myers’ laptop, issued a warrant for his arrest and seized his cellphone.
Myers turned himself in to police custody and was released on a $20,000 bond. He now waits for his case to be heard by a grand jury in 2023, which will decide whether to indict him. But just being charged, he said, has felt damaging.
“My reputation has taken a hit and, as journalists, all we have are our reputations,” Myers said.
Two North Carolina journalists, arrested in December 2021, will also continue to face charges into 2023. Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were arrested and charged with trespassing while documenting a homeless encampment sweep on Christmas night in 2021. After nearly a year of rescheduled hearings, the two were ordered in November to appear for a bench hearing, where a judge would rule on their charges and sentence them.
Freedom of the Press Foundation, which oversees and operates the Tracker, condemned the reporters’ arrests and ongoing charges.
“First Amendment freedoms are especially crucial when the press documents interactions between society’s most powerful figures (police officers) and its least powerful (unhoused individuals),” said Seth Stern, FPF’s advocacy director. “Journalists should be commended, not prosecuted, when they document police actions, whether the police like it or not.”
Bliss told the Tracker that each time they were ordered to appear in court, the reporters had to prepare for the possibility they would be incarcerated.
“I was trying to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row in case it was the worst case scenario: There is a maximum penalty of 20 days in jail,” Bliss said. “We’ve both had to make lots of sacrifices throughout this year.”
On the day of the November hearing, the case was continued — yet again. Bliss and Coit are now scheduled to appear in court in January 2023.
The pursuit of accountability
Like Coit and Bliss, Oregon-based reporter April Ehrlich was also arrested while covering an encampment sweep. Despite outcry from press freedom groups — Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press with a coalition of media organizations submitted three letters to the court outlining the unconstitutionality of the charges — Ehrlich endured nearly two years of waiting for the 2020 charges to be dropped as prosecutors postponed her trial date.
When the last of the charges against her were finally dropped this August, Ehrlich joined the more than 90 journalists in the Tracker database who have turned to lawsuits to hold authorities accountable.
The majority of tracked lawsuits stem from incidents that took place in 2020 and 2021 while the journalists were covering the mass protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. This year, at least three journalists who were arrested and assaulted while covering those national demonstrations reached settlement agreements with state or local authorities.
In July, two Oregon reporters, Cory Elia and Lesley McLam were awarded $50,000 and $40,000, respectively, as part of a settlement agreement with the City of Portland, Multnomah County and the state. Elia and McLam, co-plaintiffs in a civil suit, each alleged they were arrested and assaulted by police while covering multiple protests in late May and early June 2020.
Elia told the Tracker that he and McLam agreed to the settlement in part because they didn’t want to sit by as the case was drawn out another two or three years. “I’m not thrilled, but I’m satisfied,” Elia said. “I can start the healing process.”
This September, Pablo Unzueta agreed to a $90,000 settlement agreement in his lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the county and Sheriff Alex Villaneuva. Unzueta was covering a 2020 social justice protest in LA as a student photojournalist when he was arrested, assaulted and had his equipment seized by deputies. He told the Tracker the path to accountability has been long and arduous.
“It’s already difficult being a student photojournalist and fighting for your voice within the margins of the journalism industry,” Unzueta said in a statement. “Being deliberately targeted by the police gave me no choice but to stand up for myself.”
Nearly $2 million has been awarded to journalists in settlements of lawsuits alleging wrongful detainment or arrest since 2017. An additional 16 journalists arrested or detained have pending lawsuits with hearings scheduled in 2023.
Ehrlich, the journalist whose 2020 arrest charges were dropped this August, told the Tracker that holding the powerful to account is one reason behind her lawsuit. But it’s also about protecting future journalists.
“I hope it sets a precedent,” Ehrlich said. “It’s not OK to block the media from police action just because they don’t want people to see it, just because they don’t want people to document it.”