An Iowa jury acquitted a journalist on Wednesday in a highly unusual trial of a reporter who was arrested last spring as she covered a protest against racism and police violence.
Andrea Sahouri, a public safety reporter for The Des Moines Register, was arrested May 31 while covering a sometimes chaotic demonstration near the Merle Hay mall in downtown Des Moines. Police ordered protesters to disperse and used pepper spray against them. Ms. Sahouri, who said she identified herself as a reporter, was arrested along with her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who had accompanied her that day.
Ms. Sahouri, 25, pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges of failing to disperse and interference with official acts. Each is punishable by up to 30 days in jail. On Wednesday, a six-person jury found Ms. Sahouri and Mr. Robnett not guilty on both charges.
The demonstration she covered was part of a nationwide movement that sprang up after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed last May while in police custody in Minneapolis.
It is uncommon for journalists in the United States to be arrested while on the job, and rarer still for them to face criminal prosecution. In a Feb. 24 editorial, The Register decried the charges against Ms. Sahouri as “a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice.”
The trial, which took place at the Drake University Legal Clinic in Iowa City, started on Monday, with Judge Lawrence P. McLellan presiding. It was also live-streamed.
Prosecutors from the Polk County Attorney’s Office argued that Ms. Sahouri’s job was irrelevant and told the jury to focus on whether or not she and Mr. Robnett had obeyed police instructions. The prosecutors also said that Ms. Sahouri was not wearing press credentials and that she and Mr. Robnett had failed to leave the area despite police orders.
Luke Wilson, a Des Moines police officer, testified that he had arrested Ms. Sahouri because she did not leave the area of the protest, despite police orders. He added that she had attempted to move her arm away from him during the arrest. He also said in court that his body camera had failed to record his interaction with Ms. Sahouri.
Ms. Sahouri testified on Tuesday that she had not heard police dispersal orders because she was focused on reporting what she considered a historic moment. She said she had retreated from the protest area when she was pepper-sprayed. She also testified that she had told the arresting officer that she was reporting on the event.
The six-member jury was shown body cam footage taken by another police officer that captured Ms. Sahouri stating that she was a journalist for The Des Moines Register. “This is my job!” she shouted.
The case attracted the attention of press advocates. In a statement this week, Erika Guevara-Rosas, a director of Amnesty International, said the prosecution represented “a clear violation of press freedom and fit a disturbing pattern of abuses against journalists by police in the U.S.A.”
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project comprising a number of press freedom organizations, said that 11 other journalists working for U.S. publications were facing criminal charges after being arrested while covering protests last year.
Kirstin McCudden, the managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, expressed concern about the prosecution of Ms. Sahouri. “This trial is a concerning precedent that journalists, even those fortunate enough to have media outlets behind them, could face the same drain on resources and time that this trial is,” Ms. McCudden said.
Tomas Murawski, a reporter for The Alamance News in North Carolina, is among the journalists facing prosecution. He was arrested Oct. 31 while covering a protest in Graham, N.C., and charged with resisting, delaying or obstructing a police officer. The case is set for a March 31 court hearing.
April Ehrlich, a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore., was arrested Sept. 22 while reporting on a police action to clear homeless people from a park in Medford, Ore. Ms. Ehrlich, who won an Edward R. Murrow award last year, was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. A pretrial conference hearing is scheduled for March 16.
Another journalist who has been charged is Richard Cummings, a freelance photographer. He was arrested June 1 while covering a demonstration in Worcester, Mass. He had a court hearing on Monday, and his next court date is April 20.
Thomas J. Healy, a constitutional law professor at Seton Hall University law school, said that even if the charges against the journalists were dropped, such arrests and prosecutions could end up having “a chilling effect on the press.”
“We rely on journalists to cover protests and the police response to protests,” he said. “This kind of transparency is how our democracy functions effectively.”