- Published On
- December 20, 2023
Charges criminalized routine newsgathering, from seeking comment to protecting sources
At least 12 journalists in the United States were arrested or faced dubious charges in 2023, among them two journalists in Alabama who were charged with felonies for “publishing” and a reporter in Illinois who was cited for asking city employees “too many questions.” The criminalization of routine journalism this year shows authorities either do not understand newsgathering practices or, more alarmingly, do and use prosecutions as a cudgel to chill future reporting.
Asking questions of public officials
Illinois-based reporter Hank Sanders opened his mailbox in October to find three citations accusing him of “interference/hampering of city employees.” The alleged harassment: the Daily Southtown journalist’s emails and calls to the Calumet City mayor and other local officials for comment on recent flooding.
While the charges were quickly dropped, emails released to Sanders as part of a public records request showed that the mayor had also attempted to bar Sanders from entering City Hall or contacting city employees.
Several other reporters were blindsided by legal proceedings or accusations of crimes this year as they attempted to seek comment from local politicians or law enforcement.
Arizona reporter Camryn Sanchez was served a restraining order after investigating the residency claims of state Sen. Wendy Rogers. Rogers told a judge she thought Sanchez might physically harm her and called the reporter’s behavior “creepy” and "bizarre” on social media. Arizona Capitol Times Publisher Michael Gorman asserted that it was not about the senator’s safety, but about muzzling the press. That prior restraint remained in place for a month before a second judge lifted it.
Similarly, two Los Angeles Times reporters were accused by the local police union of “stalking” after they attempted to contact an officer at her home. The union emailed the journalists’ names and photos to its thousands of members, advising officers not to speak to them and claiming that it was “unacceptable” for journalists to approach officers at their homes.
Attempts to criminalize routine journalistic activities, such as contacting public officials or the subjects of stories, send a chill through the heart of newsgathering.
Obtaining and publishing information
Throughout the year, at least 30 journalists and news organizations were summoned into courtrooms to identify their source or turn over reporting materials. In at least one instance, a refusal to comply led to criminal charges.
As a reporter for The Bakersfield Californian, Ishani Desai found one of her jailhouse interviews the subject of multiple subpoenas from a public defender, and by May the newspaper was ordered to turn over her interview questions and notes. When it refused, the Californian was held in contempt of court.
While the charge was dropped due to procedural errors, a court of appeals ruled that the defendant’s fair trial rights overcame the state shield law protections. Ultimately complying in November, Californian Executive Editor Christine Peterson cited the high legal costs of appealing to the California Supreme Court.
“In an age of diminished newsroom resources — experienced by newsrooms across the country — we were compelled to make a practical decision,” she said.
In another case, following a year-long fight, journalist Catherine Herridge now faces potential contempt charges and thousands of dollars in fines for each day she refuses to identify the source behind her reporting while at Fox News. The court is expected to rule on the charge in early 2024, and will determine the penalty if Herridge is convicted.
In Alabama, a prosecutor jumped straight to prosecuting a reporter and a publisher at the Atmore News for allegedly violating the state’s grand jury secrecy law, rather than focusing on identifying the source of a leak on recent subpoenas. These are the first instances documented in the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker of individuals at news organizations being charged with felonies explicitly for publishing.
The newspaper’s publisher, Sherry Digmon, and reporter Don Fletcher remain under a gag order as a condition of their bail, and have avoided publishing any information about ongoing criminal investigations. While an alleged leaker is also facing a felony charge, she is bound by no such order.
Documenting breaking news in the field
As in other years, the most visible — and often the most hazardous — form of newsgathering is covering breaking news on the scene.
In February, NewsNation correspondent Evan Lambert was ordered to stop his live broadcast by the head of Ohio’s National Guard, who claimed it was “rude” and a “shitty move” to broadcast while Gov. Mike DeWine was giving a press briefing. Officers then physically removed Lambert, forcing him to the ground and arresting him for criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. Both charges were dropped after a week. Lambert has since filed a lawsuit alleging battery, false arrest, interference with newsgathering and retaliation.
“I am doing alright. And I will be OK,” Lambert wrote on social media. “I will also continue to do my job without fear or favor in service of the public.”
Arrests or detainments of journalists as documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker
Meanwhile, in just over a month three journalists were arrested while covering pro-Palestinian protests in response to the Israel-Gaza war. Independent photojournalist Eric Marks was charged with jaywalking in October, and in November independent journalist Ashoka Jegroo was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and public radio reporter Alisa Reznick with criminal trespassing.
Picking battles and pushing back
When facing charges, journalists can be forced to decide whether and how to fight them. For Eric Marks, paying the $123 fine for his jaywalking citation was easier.
“What is there to fight? It’s my word against a Reno police officer,” Marks said. “Was I jaywalking, technically? Yes. Did he order me to jaywalk? Yes.”
Freelance journalists Stephanie Keith and Lucas Mullikin, both of whom were detained while filming police activity in 2023, accepted offers of deferred prosecution, akin to probation, meaning the charges will be dropped after a specified period if they are not arrested again.
For two Asheville Blade reporters who opted to fight their December 2021 charges, the process has proven long and unforgiving. After more than 15 months of delayed hearings, both were convicted of trespassing by a judge during a bench hearing in April 2023. They appealed for a jury trial and were convicted a second time in June. They are in the process of appealing yet again.
Some journalists find themselves besieged before there are even charges to fight. Kansas law enforcement raided the newsroom of the Marion County Record in August, seizing “everything we have,” the paper’s publisher said.
While the Record’s equipment was quickly returned, Florida-based journalist Tim Burke is still awaiting the return of the nine computers and other equipment that FBI agents seized from his home newsroom in May. Even though some of his files have been returned, Burke told the Tracker it’s not enough for him to resume working.
“It's a little like someone taking your car and then giving you the gas back,” Burke said.
For those charged with a crime, recourse sometimes comes in the form of lawsuits after the fact. This November, KPCC and LAist reporter Josie Huang reached a $700,000 settlement with Los Angeles County and its sheriff’s department after being arrested and assaulted in 2020, the largest award to an individual journalist whose rights were violated amid 2020 protest coverage. As part of the agreement, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to retrain its employees on the department’s news media policy, including that detaining or otherwise interfering with journalists on public grounds is prohibited.
In total, more than $4 million has been awarded to journalists since 2017 in settlements of lawsuits alleging wrongful detainment or arrest, and more than a dozen similar suits are still pending.
Huang said that journalists, as the public’s eyes and ears, must be able to gather the news without interference.
“This settlement upholds the rights of journalists and helps ensure that what happened to me won’t happen to other reporters,” Huang said. “My arrest was traumatic, but I hope that some good can still come of this experience.”