PITTSBURGH — Student journalists for the University ofPittsburgh’s Pitt News were arrested September 25 while reportingon protests of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
While covering the Friday evening protests, in which more than 100 peoplewere arrested, student photojournalists for the Pitt News were stopped bypolice. Seven report they were gassed with pepper spray or tear gas, one wassprayed in the face with mace and two photojournalists, Victor Powell and VaughnWallace, were arrested, according to the Pitt News. Journalists workingfor the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Twin Cities IndyMedia and severalfreelance journalists were also arrested.
Powell and Wallace were charged with failure to disperse and disorderlyconduct.
“There is some indication that at the very least, the police wereindifferent to newsgatherer status,” said Chris Hoel, an attorney whofrequently represents the Pitt News and its staff. “There are evensome indications that they might have been targeting journalists. … In thiscase, [arresting journalists] seemed to be an objective.”
Arresting journalists harms vital news coverage of events, according toFrank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
“There’s a huge difference between participating in a riot anddocumenting a riot,” LoMonte said. “We can’t have journalistsfrightened to report on a disturbance for fear they will be rounded up andarrested. It will intimidate journalists into avoiding a conflict, which meanswe’ll all lose out on the coverage.”
Student accounts of the protests published in the Post-Gazette, theNew York Times and the Pitt News say city police used tear gas,pepper spray, rubber bullets and beanbag guns to break up crowds in Oakland anddisable those trying to flee from the scene. The police also used a Long RangeAcoustic Device–the first time the sound-generating device was usedagainst American civilians on U.S. soil–to send loud prerecorded messagesand sound effects to the protesters and observers.
Of the 190 people arrested over the course of the summit, 51 wereUniversity of Pittsburgh students, according to a statement made in thePost-Gazette by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.Students commenting in the Pitt News and the Post-Gazetteexpressed outrage over their charges of failure to disperse and said they couldnot get away from police, who blocked access to side streets and escape routes.According to one report in the Post-Gazette, police went after studentswaiting in line at a local restaurant, studying at the library, and hanging outin front of residence halls.
“They chased students eight blocks west and then charged them withfailure to disperse,” Hoel said. “Think that through. They chase youfor eight blocks and then tell you you didn’t disperse.”
Students who were cited or arrested in the weekend protests will be calledbefore the university’s Judicial Board for violating the student code ofconduct. According to the code, “conduct off-campus may be subject todisciplinary action by the University if that conduct seriously threatens thehealth, welfare, or safety of the University community or any individual memberthereof, or that conduct reflects upon the student’s character and fitnessas a member of the student body” as determined by the Judicial Board.
Drew Singer, editor-in-chief of the Pitt News, said the news staffput out an editorial Sunday night discussing the situation.
“The Judicial Board should waive [their] claims, becausethere’s no way to tell which were the students who were defying theauthorities and which students were just heading home,” he said.
According to their Web sites, Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police ReviewBoard and the ACLU of Pennsylvania are investigating police conduct during theprotests. Pittsburgh police are deciding how to proceed with the charges filedagainst students. The University of Pittsburgh is also discussing what to dowith the students who were arrested or cited at the protests, according to astatement made to the Pitt News by university spokesman John Fedele.University of Pittsburgh officials were unavailable for comment for this story.
“Students sitting at a table at the library getting arrested is goingto be pretty hard to justify,” Hoel said. “Students getting arrestedfor failure to disperse eight blocks away seems like a stretch to me. … Thepolice surrounded the kids. They had no place to go. They gassed them. Now theyare crying, rubbing their eyes, and they have no place to go.”