How to communicate to police that you’re a journalist while covering a protest

white logo saying SPLC and Student Press Law Center on a bright blue background

Law enforcement may not be familiar with the student press. They may see you only as students, and not know or understand the essential role of student journalists in covering public events such as protests. This letter may be helpful in providing law enforcement with evidence of your claims. Carry a physical copy (do not simply keep it on your phone) with you in the event of disagreements with law enforcement. This letter is not a press credential. 

If you believe law enforcement perceives you as a protestor and not as a member of the press or does not recognize the student press as press, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Clearly inform the officer that you are media, show them your credential and state you are there as in a press capacity only. (If you have been joining with chants or otherwise protesting, you are not there in a press capacity.) 
  2. If you are detained, moved or otherwise treated differently than commercial media and it is safe to do so, ask to speak with a supervisor. 
  3. Reassert that you are media, show them your credential, and give them this letter.
  4. Ask to be given the same considerations as the commercial media.
  5. If the officer refuses, document the name of the officer and the time and location of the interaction. Contact the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline as soon as practicable.

The letter:

See a PDF version of the letter

Staff members of student news media are student journalists, credentialed for the purposes of recording and reporting events and issues of public importance. They provide an Essential Service as members of the media.

Student journalists adhere to the same legal and ethical requirements as professional journalists, are overseen by editors and advisers, and produce publicly-available, bylined work for their established student publication. Student journalists are members of the news media and as such should receive the same treatment from law enforcement as commercial journalists.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Ability to collect and report the news, including the video and audio recording of public events and interviewing of witnesses;
  • Access to publicly available documents and/or records and meetings;
  • Exemption from orders to disperse when such exemptions are made for news media generally;
  • Information about and the ability to access any designated press area;
  • Protection from seizure of work product or documentary materials in accordance with the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 and similar state laws; and
  • Exemption from any curfew during which news media is also exempt.

Student journalists understand and appreciate their responsibilities while covering controversial or complex situations. They take seriously their responsibility to provide a fair and accurate accounting of this event, and to do so safely. The Student Press Law Center urges you to allow student journalists to continue their reporting and to clarify any concerns with them and their adviser as appropriate at a later date.