Volume 58

Under Attack: How Enhanced Anti-Protest Laws Impede and Endanger the Free Press

by April Knight

In May 2020, police arrested Andrea Sahouri, a reporter from The Des Moines Register, while she was covering a Black Lives Matter demonstration. They pepper sprayed Sahouri and zip-tied her hands behind her back, even though she repeatedly identified herself as “press” to the officers. Des Moines police claimed that Sahouri was not wearing press credentials and appeared to be participating in an unlawful assembly, and charged her with “failure to disperse and interfering with official acts.” These charges drew swift criticism as “clear violation[s] of press freedom” and part of a “disturbing pattern of abuses against journalists by police” in America. 

The Des Moines protest was part of the resurgence in activism in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black Americans. These demonstrations have been followed by a wave of enhanced anti-protest legislation, which First Amendment activists have criticized as an unconstitutional means of quelling public dissent and civil disobedience movements. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law last year making camping on state property, previously a misdemeanor, a felony punishable by one to six years in prison. Between 2015 and 2019 alone, 116 state bills restricting protest rights were introduced, 23 of which became law in 15 states. These enhanced anti-protests laws produce a chilling effect for members of the Fourth Estate by increasing restrictions and dangers to journalists covering protests. 

While the press enjoys First Amendment protections, states must refrain from passing redundant, vaguely drafted, enhanced anti-protest legislation that hinder journalists’ ability to perform press functions and endanger their persons. Part I of this Comment will summarize existing First Amendment protections for newsgathering. Part II describes how enhanced anti-protest laws place journalists at greater risk of arrest or attack from law enforcement and the general public. Part III argues that states should refrain from passing redundant anti-protest legislation, or, in the alternative, craft cautiously narrow proposals that would not proscribe constitutionally protected activity by the press and public. 

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