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Des Moines Register Reporter Tried at Drake

Photo by Brady Lovig | Staff Photographer

On May 31, 2020, Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri and her former boyfriend were arrested while she covered a demonstration in Des Moines protesting the police killing of George Floyd.
They each face two misdemeanor charges of interference with official acts and failure to disperse in their trial that started Monday.
Nearly a year after her arrest, Sahouri is one of 12 journalists arrested while covering protests whose charges are still pending, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The trial is being held at the Drake Legal Clinic as part of the first-year trial practicum at Drake law school.
Every year, a trial that all first-year law students attend is arranged to take place on Drake’s campus. Steve Foritano, director of the first-year trial practicum, said trials can happen on campus because the legal clinic is designated as an official courtroom for the 5th Judicial District of Iowa.
Trial practicum cases are typically felony charges such as robbery or vehicular homicide, but Foritano said Sahouri’s misdemeanor case happened to be coming up for trial.
“It’s a good case for our students because it’s got a lot of First Amendment implications, the protest implications, the Register reporter angle; so it’s a good case to really [bring up] a lot of constitutional issues,” Foritano said. “Even though it’s a simple misdemeanor and even though it’s a shorter trial, it’s still something that’s going to be really interesting and thought provoking for our students.”
As facts of the case emerged, Sahouri’s arrest prompted calls in and outside of court for the Polk County Attorney’s Office to drop the charges. Groups petitioning the county attorney include the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Amnesty International and Sahouri’s alma mater, Columbia University.
On the evening of the protest at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, Sahouri used Twitter to document the growing number of demonstrators, their encounters with police and vandalism to the mall. Her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, was at the protest with her for safety reasons.
The Des Moines Register reported that just before 8 p.m. police used tear gas and told the crowd to move away from the mall. Sahouri’s photo on Twitter showing clouds of tear gas in the mall’s parking lot was her last update before she was arrested.
In a video she recorded following her arrest, the reporter said after the tear gas was dispersed she and Robnett moved with protesters across the street where Des Moines police pepper sprayed and arrested her. Sahouri said she and Robnett told police she was a member of the press multiple times prior to the arrest.
Des Moines Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter, said top editors and attorneys quickly contacted Des Moines police and the county prosecutor’s office to “make very clear she was a Register reporter and she was on assignment that evening.” Despite this, Sahouri was detained at Polk County Jail for about three hours and the misdemeanor charges were filed.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he thinks confirmation that Sahouri was at the protest in an official capacity should have resulted in her release.
“I can understand being detained until they learn enough to make that determination,” Evans said. “But once they know that, then I don’t understand how there’s a legal basis for continuing the prosecution of these total charges against her.”
Prosecutors including Polk County Attorney John Sarcone have made few public comments about reasons for pursuing this case.
“We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case,” Sarcone said Aug. 20 in a written statement to the Des Moines Register.
Coverage of Sahouri’s case from KCCI reported that the prosecution will argue the reporter did not wear press credentials and “appeared to be an active participant in an unlawful assembly.”
“When you’re a reporter at the scene, you’re mixed in with other people because you’re very close to be able to conduct interviews and see up close what’s happening,” Hunter, who is also a member of the Des Moines Register editorial board, said. “We do not believe there is any evidence that she willfully violated the dispersal order.”
Evans said the argument about a lack of press credentials at the trial would wade into a constitutional issue.
“It’ll be interesting to watch that unfold because the First Amendment doesn’t include any kind of requirement that the free press has to be identified in any outward way,” he said.
Another issue Evans said he will watch during the trial is how the prosecution and defense each approach the fact that other journalists were “in very close proximity to Sahouri and were not arrested and were doing the same kinds of work.”
The Press Freedom Tracker documented 127 arrests of journalists in 2020, which is twice as many as the 58 arrests from the previous three years combined. Hunter said that having journalists on the scene during protests is vital.
“That is very troubling because journalists are at protests to be the eyes and ears of the public, to conduct interviews, to take photographs, to be eyewitnesses about what is actually unfolding with protesters and with the police,” Hunter said. “If you arrest journalists [and] remove them from the scene, who is there to write the history of what’s going on, who is there to be the eyes and ears of the community? [That is] depriving the community of its right to be informed.”
A story on the developments and details of the trial will follow.

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