Rare Trial Against Iowa Reporter Raises First Amendment Questions

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Prosecutors in Iowa opened their case Monday against a Des Moines Register reporter arrested and pepper sprayed during racial justice protests last summer, in a rare trial of a U.S. journalist charged with a crime while reporting, reports the Washington Post. Andrea Sahouri and Spenser Robnett were charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts, misdemeanors that could lead to 30 days in jail. Prosecutor Brecklyn Carey presented the case as a simple one that hinges on whether Sahouri and Robnett complied with an order to disperse and interfered with an arrest. However, journalism experts following the case warn that the prosecutor’s decision to omit the fact that Sahouri was reporting at the time of her arrest is alarming. Authorities have said little in public about the case in the 10 months between Sahouri’s arrest and her trial, despite protests and demands for explanations from free press advocates.

Several major organizations have called on Polk County Attorney John Sarcone to drop the charges, including Amnesty International and more than 250 people affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where Sahouri graduated. The First Amendment doesn’t give special privileges to journalists to remain in nonpublic spaces, but many prosecutors have traditionally declined to pursue charges against reporters covering protests. Journalists across the country were injured by police while covering last summer’s racial justice protests. At least 126 were detained or arrested on the job that year — more than the previous three years combined, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

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