College journalist arrested during Ferguson protests receives settlement from St. Louis County

ST. LOUIS — Journalist Trey Yingst, a rising senior at American University who was arrested while covering the November protests in Ferguson, has settled a civil rights lawsuit filed against St. Louis County and the police officer who arrested him.

Yingst, who filed the suit in December with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, received $8,500 in the settlement on Monday. His charges — unlawful assembly, failure to obey a lawful order and interfering with the duties of a police officer — have been dropped, and St. Louis County will assist in expunging the arrest from his record.

Yingst, a reporter and videographer, first went to Ferguson last August, to cover the protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American, was shot and killed by a white police officer. He returned in November to cover the protests leading up to the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson. Yingst was covering the protests for the multimedia news site News2Share, which he co-founded.

The grand jury decision was on a Monday, Yingst said, and on the Saturday before, he was recording the police clearing the street of protesters. Everything was relatively calm, he said.

Then, Yingst looked up from his camera to see a police officer pointing at him, yelling at him to move. Yingst said he told the officer that he was standing on the sidewalk, where he was allowed to be, and not the street.

The officer yelled, “Lock him up!” and took him into custody, Yingst recalled. He was in jail for five or six hours, he said. The police report, he said in a statement, was “filled with lies.”

The next day, the ACLU of Missouri offered to represent Yingst in a civil lawsuit, he said. They filed a suit in December against the officer, Lt. James Vollmer, for violating Yingst’s First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and against St. Louis County, for not properly training its officers and for defamation.

Yingst, a college junior at the time, said all this had happened at the end of the semester, during finals preparation.

Creating a scholarship for college journalists

Yingst has said that after he pays his attorney fees and travel costs, he will donate the rest of the $8,500 settlement to a scholarship fund for high school students from Ferguson who want to study journalism in college.

“I don’t want to keep any of the money,” Yingst said. His goal for the lawsuit, he said, was to have the police department admit that they wrongly arrested him. To “arrest a journalist while they’re exercising their First Amendment rights — it’s not okay. It’s not only unconstitutional, but it’s illegal,” he said. 

He plans to return to Ferguson for the one-year anniversary of Brown’s shooting on Aug. 9. When he’s there, he wants to speak with a few high schools in the area to see which one would be interested in hosting the scholarship.

“I think it’s very important, particularly in that area of the country, that journalists are around holding law enforcement accountable,” he said.

Another journalist, Bilgin Şaşmaz, was arrested in August while photographing a police officer pointing his weapon at protesters. Şaşmaz, who was thrown violently to the ground by police despite identifying himself as a member of the media, also settled his lawsuit on Monday.

“We hope these settlements indicate that St. Louis County realizes mistakes were made in the arrest of people, including journalists, who were committing no crimes in Ferguson,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, in a statement. “The First Amendment protects our right to protest and allows the press to document unfolding events so we can draw our own conclusions about the appropriateness of police conduct.”

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.