A Des Moines Register reporter has been found not guilty by an Iowa jury of failing to disperse and interfering with official acts. She was arrested by police last summer as she was covering a Black Lives Matter protest last summer.
Andrea Sahouri's case has drawn international concerns over its implications for press freedom amid what First Amendment advocates have said is a sharp increase in recent arrests of journalists in the U.S.
Sahouri, 25, was arrested on May 31 during a protest that took place days after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis. She said that a police officer, identified as Luke Wilson, deliberately pepper-sprayed her and zip-tied her wrists even after she identified herself as a journalist.
If she had been found guilty, Sahouri's misdemeanor charges could have resulted in fines and up to 30 days in jail.
Taking the stand on Tuesday, the second day of the trial, Sahouri told the six-person jury that her actions were professional and that she announced to the arresting officer that she was a journalist.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong," Sahouri said, as Iowa Public Radio reported. "I said, 'I'm press, I'm press, I'm press.' He grabbed me, pepper-sprayed me and as he was doing so said, 'That's not what I asked.' "
Police body cam video that was shown to the jury supported Sahouri's version of events, showing that as she dealt with the effects of the pepper spray, she told the officer: "This is my job ... I'm just doing my job. I'm a journalist."
Sahouri said she was running away from police in riot gear who fired tear gas into the crowd as they moved to disperse protesters near a Des Moines shopping mall.
When she saw Wilson coming toward her, she said, she put up her hands.
Sahouri's then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, was also arrested and charged. The jury also found him not guilty.
Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was also at the protest.
Robnett, who also took the stand on Tuesday, said that after Sahouri was pepper-sprayed, he told Wilson that Sahouri was a reporter. The officer then pepper-sprayed Robnett, who was knocked to the ground, he said.
Akin, who testified that she yelled that both she and Sahouri were journalists and showed her press credentials, said that she was surprised when Sahouri was arrested because "I didn't understand us to be breaking any laws."
The Register's executive editor, Carol Hunter, has acknowledged that Sahouri was not wearing a press badge, which she said had been left in the reporter's car, The Associated Press reports. Hunter called it a "red herring," saying the police knew she was a journalist.
Wilson, who has served on the force in Des Moines for 18 years, testified that he found a "riotous mob" when he responded to the scene of the protest. He said that his unit was ordered to clear a parking lot and blanketed the area with pepper spray.
Wilson told the jury that he decided to arrest Sahouri when she didn't leave the area. He said he was not aware that she was a journalist at the time of her arrest. He said he pepper-sprayed Robnett after he tried to remove the officer's arm from Sahouri, according to the AP.
On cross-examination by Sahouri's attorney, Wilson said he charged her with interference because she briefly pulled her left arm away while he was arresting her, the AP said. He acknowledged that his police report doesn't mention that accusation.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker said 128 journalists were arrested or detained in the U.S. last year – the vast majority at protests — compared with just nine in 2019. Besides Sahouri, 13 other journalists currently face criminal charges, it added.
In a statement ahead of this week's trial, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that "the decision to move forward with [Sahouri's] prosecution flies in the face of the First Amendment."
"Law enforcement should never have arrested Andrea Sahouri in the first place simply for doing her job as a reporter," the group's executive director, Bruce Brown, said. "Andrea and other journalists like her played an essential role in informing their communities about the protests for racial justice and police accountability that took place last year, and how law enforcement responded to those demonstrations."