Editor’s note: This story was updated on 11/9/2014 to include a response from a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson.
MISSOURI — Two student reporters from Lindenwood University say they were detained and intimidated by about 15 St. Louis Metropolitan police officers for about an hour on Oct. 27 after they recorded video of police cars from a public sidewalk.
The two reporters were on assignment for Lindenwood University TV and asked permission ahead of time to shoot footage outside of the police station for a story about recent thefts of musicians’ equipment outside of St. Louis music venues, according to a letter from Lindenwood University President James Evans and university attorney Eric Stuhler. The letter was sent to Chief of Police Sam Dotson and provided a detail of the students’ account, reasoning for why the officers were out of line and requested the officers apologize to the students.
“As an institution for higher education, Lindenwood University is dedicated to protecting our students’ rights, including the rights of student reporters,” according to the letter.
In an email to the Student Press Law Center, police spokesperson Schron Jackson said the department had no indications that the encounter had occurred.
“The department takes these allegations very serious and remains committed to upholding the public’s trust in their police department,” Jackson said.
On Oct. 27, the students hoped to interview Dotson for their story but learned he did not work from that particular location and began to film B-roll of police vehicles, according to the letter. When Isis Wadleigh, one of the student reporters, and the other student reporter got into her car, a police SUV blocked them from leaving, she said.
“I thought that maybe I was blocking the way for them to get through until they got out of their car and came up to my windows,” Wadleigh said. “So they told us to put our electronics on the dashboard and turn off the car and they asked me to hand over my keys.”
The two reporters were asked to step out of the vehicle, provide identification and social security numbers to the officers, who searched their personal belongings and viewed their video footage, according to the letter. They were questioned and surrounded by officers at the back of the car for about an hour until officers spoke with them inside the station and said their footage was OK to use and they could go, Wadleigh said.
Wadleigh said she was scared and nervous at the beginning of the encounter, but started to become frustrated with the situation as the officers continued to ask questions about why they were filming.
“After it kept going and they kept questioning us and saying, making strange comments, I was just getting really frustrated and annoyed,” she said.
Jackson said the police department is looking into the students’ allegations, although he said they have no record of an encounter.
“We respect their First Amendment rights and regret any discomfort they may have experienced,” Jackson said.
Filming or photographing the police with or without permission is a given right to anyone, not just the press, Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in 2011.
“Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” he wrote.
Jill Falk, LUTV’s news director, said she couldn’t believe what had happened when she received word about the incident.
“What they were shooting wasn’t controversial in any way, at least in my mind,” she said. “And I keep searching for what was the reason police had in their minds to treat the students this way, and I can’t find one.”
Both Falk and Evans said that recent events and protests since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb outside of St. Louis, may have helped make relations and encounters between the press and police “tenuous,” Falk said.
“There’s a lot of tension between the press and police, and I think if these student reporters had been in this situation three months ago, things probably would have been much different,” she said. “But because of what happened in Ferguson, everybody is on edge.”
Falk said she and other professors in the communication department will take this incident for what it is: a teaching opportunity.
“We can point directly to what happens to these students and say you’ve got to be very vocal about your rights not only as a citizen but as a member of the press, as a student reporter, to shoot video of police from a public sidewalk,” she said, “and to really make sure that message hits home for students.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.