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Pa. student journalists arrested while covering G-20 protests

September 29, 2009

PITTSBURGH -- Student journalists for the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News were arrested September 25 while reporting on protests of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

While covering the Friday evening protests, in which more than 100 people were arrested, student photojournalists for the Pitt News were stopped by police. Seven report they were gassed with pepper spray or tear gas, one was sprayed in the face with mace and two photojournalists, Victor Powell and Vaughn Wallace, were arrested, according to the Pitt News. Journalists working for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Twin Cities IndyMedia and several freelance journalists were also arrested.

Powell and Wallace were charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.

"There is some indication that at the very least, the police were indifferent to newsgatherer status," said Chris Hoel, an attorney who frequently represents the Pitt News and its staff. "There are even some indications that they might have been targeting journalists. ... In this case, [arresting journalists] seemed to be an objective."

Arresting journalists harms vital news coverage of events, according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

"There's a huge difference between participating in a riot and documenting a riot," LoMonte said. "We can't have journalists frightened to report on a disturbance for fear they will be rounded up and arrested. It will intimidate journalists into avoiding a conflict, which means we'll all lose out on the coverage."

Student accounts of the protests published in the Post-Gazette, the New 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 and disable those trying to flee from the scene. The police also used a Long Range Acoustic Device--the first time the sound-generating device was used against American civilians on U.S. soil--to send loud prerecorded messages and sound effects to the protesters and observers.

Of the 190 people arrested over the course of the summit, 51 were University of Pittsburgh students, according to a statement made in the Post-Gazette by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Students commenting in the Pitt News and the Post-Gazette expressed outrage over their charges of failure to disperse and said they could not get away from police, who blocked access to side streets and escape routes. According to one report in the Post-Gazette, police went after students waiting in line at a local restaurant, studying at the library, and hanging out in front of residence halls.

"They chased students eight blocks west and then charged them with failure to disperse," Hoel said. "Think that through. They chase you for eight blocks and then tell you you didn't disperse."

Students who were cited or arrested in the weekend protests will be called before the university's Judicial Board for violating the student code of conduct. According to the code, "conduct off-campus may be subject to disciplinary action by the University if that conduct seriously threatens the health, welfare, or safety of the University community or any individual member thereof, or that conduct reflects upon the student's character and fitness as a member of the student body" as determined by the Judicial Board.

Drew Singer, editor-in-chief of the Pitt News, said the news staff put out an editorial Sunday night discussing the situation.

"The Judicial Board should waive [their] claims, because there's no way to tell which were the students who were defying the authorities and which students were just heading home," he said.

According to their Web sites, Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board and the ACLU of Pennsylvania are investigating police conduct during the protests. Pittsburgh police are deciding how to proceed with the charges filed against students. The University of Pittsburgh is also discussing what to do with the students who were arrested or cited at the protests, according to a statement 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 going to be pretty hard to justify," Hoel said. "Students getting arrested for failure to disperse eight blocks away seems like a stretch to me. ... The police surrounded the kids. They had no place to go. They gassed them. Now they are crying, rubbing their eyes, and they have no place to go."

By Mary Keister, SPLC staff writer

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© 2009 Student Press Law Center

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