Last week, a journalist faced trial for reporting the news. This week, another journalist faces a similar trial.
But there is a key difference between the two. One of those trials took place in Somalia; the other is taking place in America’s heartland.
Andrea Sahouri is a journalist of color who was covering a racial injustice protest — sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police — and was arrested on a “refusal to disperse” charge last year.
We can excuse a mistaken arrest of a journalist who is gathering news in a chaotic scene that is quickly corrected. What is inexcusable is that nearly a year later, this arrest has turned into a criminal trial.
The First Amendment, and the right to gather and report the news without government intervention, is a cornerstone right of American democracy. Sahouri, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, was doing the work our Founding Fathers held so valuable: reporting the news.
On May 31, 2020, Sahouri was covering the protest at Merle Hay Mall. The crowd turned unruly — but that’s no reason to bar journalists from reporting the news. This story was without dispute an important one. Nationwide protests garnered headlines for months, and they will be among the top stories of the decade, if not the generation.
When cops encountered Sahouri, she identified herself as a member of the press. Officers shot pepper spray in her face, zip-tied her hands behind her back and sat her in the back of a paddy-wagon. She was ultimately jailed and charged with failure to disperse. Other reporters were there but weren’t arrested.
The officers involved didn't turn on their body cameras. Their cameras, though, have a built-in function to retrieve video even if a recording isn’t activated, but they didn’t do that before the camera automatically erased the footage. Sahouri has videos of her own and so do other media.
Mistaken arrests of journalists happen from time to time. But usually, when the dust settles, these errors are corrected. A police sergeant or prosecutor will recognize their department’s error in a chaotic environment, drop the charges and free the journalist.
That didn’t happen in Polk County.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s office argues that she wasn’t wearing her press credentials and said that journalists don’t have a free pass to ignore dispersal orders.
The prosecutor’s case is thin, at best, and strikes a blow to First Amendment rights.
There is no requirement for a journalist to wear a press badge, doing so is simply a courtesy. As far as the dispersal order, it was issued 90 minutes before the arrest, according to court records. Sahouri’s attorneys argued Monday the demand was for the crowd to “get back” but not to leave the area. They said Sahouri was following that order.
The Press Freedom Tracker says 126 journalists were arrested or detained during 2020’s protests nationwide, but only 13 still faced charges. (For contrast, just nine journalists were arrested in 2019, according to the tracker.)
Civil rights attorney Glen Downey, of Des Moines, summarized the case best: “It’s like somebody with their hand in the cookie jar: They can’t admit that they made a mistake.”
The trial is occurring at Drake University, home to a law school. A significant number of law students are viewing the proceedings as an educational opportunity. This week, those students get to learn that there’s a price to pay for exercising First Amendment rights.