Members of Columbia Journalism School Community Demand Polk County Attorney's Office Dismiss Charges Against Alumna Andrea Sahouri
Faculty, staff, alumni and students of Columbia Journalism School have signed the following letter demanding charges facing Andrea Sahouri, a 2019 alumna being charged for covering the George Floyd protests, be dropped. Please find the full text, to be delivered to Polk County, Iowa Attorney John Sarcone, below. Click here to add your name to the list of signatories.
Dear Attorney Sarcone:
We are faculty, staff, alumni and current students of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. We write to urge you to drop the unjustified charges of “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts” that remain pending against Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri, who is a graduate of our school.
On the evening of May 31 Sahouri was reporting near Merle Hay Mall on a demonstration protesting the May 25 killing of George Floyd. A little before 8 p.m. Sahouri reported on her Twitter account that police had used tear gas to disperse the protestors. As Sahouri moved with the protestors to escape the gas, she was confronted by police, who pepper-sprayed her. KCCI 8 News footage shows her in custody, seated on a street curb with her hands behind her back in a zip tie.
In a video she recorded while in a police transport vehicle, Sahouri says that she told police “I’m press, I’m press,” before they pepper-sprayed her. In the video, posted to her Twitter account, Sahouri says, “I’m doing my job as a journalist. I’m just out here reporting as I see.” She says she asked police why she had been arrested and was told “something about failing to disperse.” Sahouri was in police custody, including time in the Polk County jail, for about three and a half hours before her release, according to an account in the Register.
Research by the US Press Freedom Tracker, which has documented the arrests of Sahouri and 56 other journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests in US cities since the end of May, shows that no more than seven of those journalists — including Sahouri — still face pending charges. In many cases, charges were dropped or dismissed after the journalists were identified as working members of the press.
In addition to her own statements to police, identifying herself as a journalist, Sahouri’s professional status was confirmed on the scene by other journalists from her newspaper and a local TV station, according to a July 14 letter to you from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Her supervisors at The Des Moines Register also confirmed to police and prosecutors that she was on assignment to cover the protests, the Council noted in its letter. After that, said the Council, “[T]here was no legitimate reason for the Polk County Attorney’s Office to proceed with these criminal charges.”
However, your office has continued its prosecution of Sahouri, who has pled not guilty to the charges. Requests by her attorney Nick Klinefeldt for police evidence have drawn negative responses. In July, for example, your office wrote that supplying body-camera footage in the case was too expensive and time-consuming, according to a Register story. The defense request, pursued in court, resulted in a September 11 court order to the state to provide “video, reports, audio recordings, and statements of the Defendant” by September 30. A court appearance in the case is scheduled in Iowa District Court for Polk County on October 9.
Sahouri was present at the May 31 protest as a working journalist, not a protestor. She was doing work clearly protected by the First Amendment, she identified herself as a journalist, others confirmed that information to police, and yet she remains charged with criminal misconduct — just for doing her job of newsgathering. We agree with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, that there is no legitimate reason to proceed with these charges, and we ask that you immediately dismiss all charges against Andrea Sahouri.
Update 10/2/2020: The letter with more than 250 signatories has been sent to Polk County Attorney John Sarcone.