116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It was the correct finish to an ordeal that never should have started.
Andrea Sahouri, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, last week was acquitted on charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. She was pepper-sprayed and arrested last May while covering social justice protests in Des Moines.
While the verdict was great news for anyone who values a free press, the entire situation is troubling for many reasons. Why was Sahouri arrested in the first place, and why was the case brought to trial?
The latter question is particularly troubling. At least 130 journalists were arrested or detained in 2020, and 14 have faced criminal charges, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Only one case, Sahouri's, has gone to trial.
It feels silly to have to type this, but here we are: Journalists should not have to fear arrest while doing their job.
Prosecutors argued that Sahouri failed to adhere to an order to disperse, and that she attempted to pull her arm away from the officer who detained her. But Sahouri and other defense witnesses said they did not hear the dispersal order, and there is no video evidence of Sahouri's alleged withdrawal from the officer. The officer had failed to turn on his body camera.
The jury took just two hours to reach its verdict. The Associated Press' Ryan Foley reported that outside observers said they were stunned by the weakness of the prosecution's evidence and baffled by Polk County Attorney John Sarcone's decision to pursue the case for nine months.
Press freedom advocates across the country expressed relief at the verdict but dismay the case was taken to trial.
Sarcone, the Polk County Attorney since 1991 and a Democrat, defended his decision.
'We felt there was more than sufficient facts to establish the case. Based on the facts and the law, we proceeded,” Sarcone told the AP. 'We bring cases to jurors and let them decide. What I have a hard time understanding is how everyone wants to short-circuit the jury process.”
This was not an inspiring response.
Journalists should not have to perform their duties - especially in a public place - under the threat of arrest and criminal charges. And, 'Hey, don't sweat it, if you're arrested for doing your job you still get a trial to determine whether you go to jail,” is hardly a comfort.
Sahouri did her job - the basic obligation of a journalist: She observed the protests so she could relay to the public what was transpiring.
'I was doing my job while complying with police orders,” Sahouri told the AP. 'I literally did nothing wrong.”
Under no circumstances should that ever land a journalist in handcuffs, a courtroom or jail.
I asked Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, a lawyer, and Assistant Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, a journalism professor, for their thoughts on the trial. Both are Democrats, like Sarcone.
Prichard said he was pleased the jury acquitted Sahouri, saying the system worked in this case. I asked Prichard, who served as a Floyd County prosecutor, whether he feels Sahouri should have faced trial in the first place.
'I'm hesitant to second-guess, not having studied the file. But you know, it's one of those things where the evidence was overwhelming that this person was not going to be found guilty,” Prichard said. 'I don't think it's a case that I, personally, would have brought as a prosecutor. But that's me.”
Konfrst repeatedly used the word 'chilling” to describe the situation.
'I felt that it was an overreach. I felt that it was a prosecution that was not necessary and was not a good use of taxpayer dollars. It's frustrating to me,” Konfrst said. 'And the chilling effect that it could have on other journalists who are trying to cover unrest, or really anything, by knowing that just by doing their jobs, they could be prosecuted and have to go to trial.”
In a statement in my official capacity as president of the Iowa Capitol Press Association, I said the not-guilty verdict was a victory for Sahouri, the Des Moines Register, the First Amendment and journalists everywhere. But at the same time, this was not a moment to celebrate.
Rather, it was a moment of relief, and a moment to reaffirm our support for free press.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.