Charges dropped against South Carolina adviser turned news photographer

A journalism professor who was arrested in November while recording a campus car fire was vindicated in mid-January when a prosecutor decided the charges would not hold up in court.

When Robert Pyle, assistant professor in the mass communications department at Winthrop University, showed up at the scene of a reported car fire on the Rock Hill campus toting a video camera, he was hoping to get footage for Winthrop Close-Up, a student-run video news magazine he advises.

Instead, Pyle was arrested following a disagreement with a campus police officer, jailed for several hours and charged with hindering a police officer, an offense carrying a maximum penalty of $225 fine and 30 days in jail if found guilty.

“What happened is that the fire was out and the officer didn’t like me being there,” Pyle said. “He told me to stand back at a certain point, so I did stand back and he didn’t like where I was standing. Ultimately, he arrested me. I was a little shocked. I was miffed because I wasn’t in the way. The fire was out; there was no danger, no perimeter set up or anything. Next thing I know I’m in cuffs and they’re driving me downtown.”

Pyle tried to reason with the arresting officer, explaining his First Amendment rights, but the officer was “determined,” he said.

At first, Winthrop University decided not to withdraw the criminal charges against Pyle despite the intervention of the dean of arts and sciences and the vice president of academic affairs on his behalf, he said.

But the school withdrew the charges after Rock Hill Solicitor Chris Barton determined they were inappropriate and probably would not hold up in court.

A professional development seminar on police and journalist relationships, set to be held sometime this spring at Winthrop University, is seen as a resolution to the issue.

While Pyle’s arrest may have been the catalyst for the seminar, it will not be discussed.

“I think it’s a good resolution all the way around,” Barton said. “It will provide some education on both sides of the fence.”

Pyle said he is happy with the outcome.

“I guess in a roundabout kind of way I won,” he said. “But it shouldn’t have happened in the first place”