SPLC secures pro bono help for student journalist assaulted and arrested while covering protest

Former student photojournalist Pablo Unzueta is well-versed in covering community protests. He had been documenting them since 2013 without issue, but what transpired at a protest on Sept. 8, 2020, has had a lasting impact on his experiences as a journalist. 

That day, while he photographed a racial justice protest in South Los Angeles, deputies assaulted and arrested Unzueta and seized his camera and cell phone. Despite following authorities’ instructions and identifying himself as a journalist, he spent the night in jail facing misdemeanor charges.

It was a call to the Student Press Law Center’s free legal hotline the next day that led Unzueta to the short- and long-term support he needed. SPLC attorneys reassured him of his First Amendment rights and connected him with local attorneys, who ultimately helped him obtain a $90,000 settlement and the release of his camera and cell phone. 

“You’re dealing with this imposter syndrome and you’re second-guessing your role as a journalist and the responsibility and the power that it has,” Unzueta said. “And through the attorneys in the Student Press Law Center, I was taught to stand up for that and not shy away from advocating for myself and for journalism because, without reporters like myself and other relentless colleagues and student journalists, there wouldn’t be a democracy.”

LASD arrests Unzueta and seizes his equipment

Unzueta was documenting protesters who had assembled outside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Sept. 8, 2020, just days after deputies fatally shot Dijon Kizzee. Unzueta, who is now a professional photojournalist, was a freelance photojournalist and video editor at the time for the Daily 49er, the student publication at California State University, Long Beach.

Police declared the protest unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. Unzueta, who shared the full story of that night with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, said he dodged flash-bang grenades and tear gas as he tried to make his way to his car. 

But, despite Unzueta trying to leave and repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist, police pinned him to a fence, handcuffed him, took his phone and photography equipment, and ultimately jailed him overnight in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. 

“I had pain on my wrists from the handcuffs for nearly a month. It was just a really like, brutal way of getting arrested as a journalist,” Unzueta said.

Preparation for student journalists covering protests

When waves of protests for racial justice broke out across the country in 2020, student journalists began asking SPLC questions about how they could protect themselves while covering protests in their communities. 

Anticipating that student journalists would become the target of law enforcement during protests — as journalists in general ultimately were — SPLC activated its nationwide Attorney Referral Network to identify volunteer attorneys who would be on call should a student journalist need immediate legal help on the ground.

SPLC attorneys hosted two short training sessions to help these rapid response volunteers prepare for the questions student journalists might have. (SPLC’s legal team implemented a similar strategy during the March For Our Lives protests in 2018.)

That preparation proved to be instrumental in protecting student journalists, like Unzueta.

When things get tough, you can rely on resources like the Student Press Law Center as I did.

Pablo Unzueta

Securing support for Unzueta

The day after he spent the night in jail, one of Unzueta’s professors advised him to reach out to SPLC. Sheriff’s deputies had refused to return his camera or cell phone, and they recommended that the prosecutor charge Unzueta with a misdemeanor for failure to disperse during an unlawful assembly.

“I started sending out emails, and I sent [SPLC] an email and they were just so quick to respond,” Unzueta said. “It really alleviated a lot of pressure, a lot of stress as well, like knowing okay, cool, this is a resource and I’m not the only one, my case isn’t unique. There’s been other folks that were in a similar situation and they’re getting backed up by essentially some really badass people.”

Through its network of volunteer pro bono attorneys, SPLC connected Unzueta with Katie Tinto, law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Law Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law

Tinto helped Unzueta address the charges against him — the prosecutor ultimately declined to charge Unzueta — and to secure the release of his camera. 

Susan Seager, also a UC Irvine law professor and the head of the Press Freedom and Transparency practice at the school’s Intellectual Property, Arts and Technology Clinic, then won the release of Unzueta’s cellphone and filed a civil lawsuit against LASD on his behalf. 

The lawsuit alleged that the LASD illegally arresting, jailing and strip-searching Unzueta, seizing his camera and cellphone, and claiming they ‘lost’ his camera memory card violated his First Amendment right to gather news regarding deputy activity in public places.

Nearly two years after the initial arrest, Seager and Unzueta settled the lawsuit against LASD for $90,000

Unzueta said being a student journalist, working full time and dealing with this issue for years –– all during a pandemic –– put a strain on his mental health. He said working with SPLC attorneys and the pro bono attorneys at UC Irvine helped to lessen a lot of the stress he felt at the time. 

“When things get tough, you can rely on resources like the Student Press Law Center as I did. It alleviated a lot of pressure off of me,” Unzueta said. “So I hope people are able to utilize the folks there who are experienced, who know the legal system and are able to relay the information that they know in order for student journalists to protect themselves from the police policing us.”

Student journalists who need legal help, including while covering protests or community walkouts, should contact SPLC’s Legal Hotline. SPLC also offers online resources for covering protests and its attorneys regularly offer a session on covering protests as part of their training opportunities at conventions and through the virtual “SPLC in the Classroom” program.