Staff Editorial

Iowa police's crowd control measures jeopardize First Amendment rights

Members of the Polk County Sheriff's Department block an entrance to the governor's mansion as protesters converged on t
Members of the Polk County Sheriff's Department block an entrance to the governor's mansion as protesters converged on the property during a march in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

As Iowa police have turned tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators, many innocent people — including journalists — have been caught up in the chaos.

Several Iowa journalists say police have interfered with newsgathering at recent protests, which are being staged to call out police violence following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. Reporters have been exposed to chemical irritants and asked to stop documenting protests, a clear affront to the public’s need to know.

Katie Akin of the Des Moines Register posted a video where she repeatedly tells police officers she is a member of the press and that she’s leaving the area, but an officer is seen spraying an irritant directly at her and a colleague.

Andrea Sahouri of the Des Moines Register was restrained in zip ties and taken to Polk County Jail for several hours, despite telling police she was a journalist. Before she was detained, she reported on Twitter, “Police arrested another man, it looked like he was just filming with a cell phone,” sparking suspicion that police were targeting people for documenting the scene.

Shane Vander Hart of the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts wrote that he and his daughter, a fellow writer, were turned away from covering protests multiple times. While following directions to vacate an area in Des Moines, Vander Hart said police told them to stop recording video.

We appreciate the incredibly difficult position police officers are put in, and we recognize force sometimes is necessary to protect order and innocent people’s lives. However, not every use of force is equal.

Protesters and reporters alike have free speech rights protected by the First Amendment. Journalists also have a constitutionally protected duty to report what’s happening to the outside world. A lack of restraint on the part of police can trample rights and obscure the public’s view of police actions, two issues at the heart of ongoing protests.

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Law enforcement leaders say their officers use restraint when facing the possibility of using chemical munitions, but that’s not the perception many Iowans get from watching video clips from Des Moines. We have seen upsetting images of peaceful people subjected to tear gas and pepper spray.

At the governor’s news conference Tuesday, Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said the decision to use chemicals to clear people out is an art, not a science. He either could not or would not point to specific criteria police officers consider when they escalate the use of force against the public.

The message seems to be that we should trust police to make the right decision, sometimes life or death, without a detailed explanation to the public. That very attitude is one of the underlying issues driving recent protests. Iowans are demanding accountability from the armed forces we entrust to wield lethal force.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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