Photo by Sharon Chischilly / Daily Lobo

Student journalists covering protests face unprecedented violence from police

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been more than 470 reported aggressions against the press — including high school and college journalists — covering public protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality. Student journalists have been tear gassed, pepper sprayed and struck by less lethal projectiles in cities across the country.

Julia Lerner, a University of Maryland student journalist, said she was chased by officers and maced three times while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio on May 30. The next night, three journalists from Ohio State University’s student newspaper, The Lantern, were pepper sprayed by Columbus Police after repeatedly identifying themselves as news media. 

New Mexico
Law enforcement fired foam-tipped rounds at staff of the Daily Lobo, the University of New Mexico’s student newspaper, during demonstrations on May 31. All reporters had visible press credentials — photographer Liam DeBonis (pictured above) even wore a bicycle helmet with an enlarged “PRESS” sticker — but that didn’t deter police.

Andrew Ringle, executive editor of Virginia Commonwealth University’s student newspaper, The Commonwealth Timeswas pepper sprayed on video while shouting “I’m press!” Ringle was covering an attempt by protestors to topple the statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart on June 21 in Richmond, Virginia. Ringle wrote on Twitter he showed his press badge to an officer shortly after but was still thrown to the ground. 

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Know your rights when covering protests

It's more important than ever to understand your legal rights while covering protests and document when they've been violated. SPLC has an in-depth guide with detailed tips on everything from how to identify yourself as press to police, how to prepare for the worst (assault, arrest, etc.), and how to avoid escalating situations. We also break down the law around covering protests and what to do afterward if your rights are violated.
See the guide

(Moot) court is in session

The SPLC Summer Media Law & Policy Institute is culminating this week with a heated moot court competition with students weighing in on a complex hypothetical case involving press freedom rights for reporters covering a controversial but newsworthy event at a university.

Nearly two dozen attorneys from around the country have volunteered their time to judge the various rounds of the competition and to serve as coaches for the six teams. The final round is being judged by: Good luck to all the participants! Next week we'll report back on the results of the moot court and share some concluding thoughts about the Institute.
More about the Institute

Q: I am the editor in chief of a high school newspaper. I just learned a website in another state reprinted — word for word — a recent story and a photo we published online. They never asked for permission. Is there anything we can do? 

Unfortunately, the situation you describe is becoming increasingly common. 

Your writer and photographer own the copyrights to their work and get to control how their work is used by others. But before going in with legal guns blazing, think about what you want. Do you just want the material removed? Are you seeking some sort of payment for their unauthorized use? Do you just want credit? Some student media may actually see a benefit to having their stories and photos shared to a larger audience, but want it done the right way (prior permission sought and proper attribution provided).

Once you’ve decided what you want, the standard play is to send the infringer a cease and desist (C&D) letter in which you claim ownership to the copyrighted material and state your demands. (Here is a sample C&D letter created by the National Press Photographers Association.) In some cases — particularly if working with a known source (e.g., a local news site) — a phone call or less formal e-mail explaining the situation and asking for a fix — may be the better initial option. 

If your initial request is ignored, I typically suggest to student media that they follow up by re-sending the letter by certified mail with a return-receipt requested. This often helps focus the recipient’s attention and provides the start of a paper trail, should that become necessary. If your demands are ignored your next step may be to take legal action.  

Since you say your article was published online, you may also be able to send the offending Web site’s host a Takedown Notice pursuant to the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). While a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of what we can offer now, here’s a short article that provides a bit more explanation. You can also contact us at the SPLC to discuss further.

See previous Ask SPLC answers

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