Resolving police officers’ recurring violations of press freedom grows even more challenging in the current context. As we saw in the first chapter, technology has made it possible for journalists to approach their role differently, to more easily straddle the line between journalism and activism. It has also changed the way journalists behave at protests, with some choosing to work incognito to blend in because of a more hostile environment. While protesters once welcomed and supported the media for communicating their demands to the public, they now sometimes view the press with mistrust. From the vantage point of many activists, smart phones and social media make journalists superfluous or even counterproductive; they would prefer to tell their own stories.

This more complex information environment has undoubtedly created challenges for police. But police have largely failed to do the work of considering what steps they might take, or policies they might implement, to protect press freedom—all the more critical due to the increased militarization of law enforcement and the more aggressive crowd control measures recently deployed.


Portland, OR

Jesse Adam Davis/Shutterstock

“We’ve seen that covering protests routinely is the most dangerous activity for journalists both because of the interactions with protesters and law enforcement, and because the law that would protect journalists in the field as they cover protests is unsettled,” said Gabe Rottman, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who has spearheaded the organization’s work related to protests.

If this is the problem, then the obvious solution is to try to settle the law. The most concerted and sustained effort to do so took place in California during 2021, and it resulted in new legislation which for the first time provided specific protections for journalists covering protests. The effort was led by a group of journalists in the Los Angeles area, including Adam Rose, who was a member of the Los Angeles Press Club and later the head of its press rights committee. The experience shows the potential for such an approach, but also reveals the limitations.

Rose’s passion for press freedom was nurtured during his childhood in San Francisco. At dinner, he recalled, the First Amendment was discussed with a kind of religious reverence. Rose’s father Hilly was a pioneer in talk radio, and his mother Mary was a print reporter turned radio producer. His older half brother Judd became a network anchor and correspondent who covered major stories, including the Gulf War, before succumbing to brain cancer in 2000 at the age of 45.

When radio reporter Josie Huang was tackled and arrested by police officers on September 12, 2020, Rose sprang into action. That night, a gunman in Compton approached a police cruiser parked at a train station and fired repeatedly through the passenger window. Two officers, seriously wounded, were transported to St. Francis Medical Center about three miles away in Lynwood, where later that evening then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva held a press conference to provide an update on their condition. Huang, an award-winning reporter for NPR affiliate KPCC in Pasadena, was there to cover it. She was typing up notes in her car when she heard deputies scuffling with a small group of protesters who were taunting the police.

Huang got out of her car and began to film an arrest. Officers tackled her in the street, pinned her arms behind her back, handcuffed her, and stomped on her phone. Footage recorded by Huang and another journalist shows her identifying herself as a reporter and also wearing a press credential around her neck. Huang was placed under arrest, held in custody for around five hours, and charged with obstructing police. She suffered cuts and abrasions.


Los Angeles, CA

At a press conference two days later, Villanueva blamed Huang for her own mistreatment. He said that deputies were on edge because protesters were calling for their wounded colleagues to die, and that Huang “picked the worst time possible to try to get an up-close of the deputies making an arrest.” He claimed that by doing so, Huang had crossed the line from journalism to activism, and she had failed to properly identify herself. (In November 2022, Villanueva lost his re-election bid, becoming only the second incumbent L.A. County sheriff in more than a century to be voted out of office. Civil rights leaders had described him as a “danger to the people that he is sworn to serve.”)

Huang’s arrest sparked outrage. It was denounced by media outlets in L.A. and across the country, the Asian American Journalists Association, and press freedom organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which sent a letter on September 16, 2020, to Villanueva reminding him that “[t]he right to record police activity in public is clearly established, and an officer who violates that First Amendment freedom—especially through the use of force—enjoys no legal immunity.”

Rose, who at the time was working as a senior editor for ViacomCBS, was furious. “It was a simmering issue,” said Rose of attacks on journalists carried out by Los Angeles law enforcement. “But when the incident with Josie occurred, it really snapped. It was absolutely disgusting.” On behalf of the L.A. Press Club, Rose began doing research and compiling a spreadsheet of attacks on journalists in the state of California.

Among the many incidents he documented was a May 30, 2020, attack on Cerise Castle, a freelance journalist working at the time for another NPR affiliate, KCRW, based in Santa Monica. As one of two Black reporters at the station, Castle felt she had a special obligation to cover L.A.-area responses to the murder of George Floyd and to convey the sentiment of the protesters.

Castle had just finished interviewing demonstrators when a group of police officers suddenly arrived in a pickup truck. Without issuing an order to disperse, they began firing rubber bullets, according to Castle’s account. Castle was struck in the arm and fell, breaking her ankle. “I’m yelling press, press, press,” said Castle. She was holding her credential in the air above her head and said that she made eye contact with the officer before he fired on her. “In my opinion, journalists are doing everything we need to do. We have not broken any laws. We have not violated any sort of policy,” said Castle. “It’s the police that have decided that we are not allowed to do our jobs anymore.”


Los Angeles, CA

Photographers working for Reuters, the L.A. Times, and other outlets were hit with rubber bullets while reporting on the social justice protests in California. Several had their equipment damaged. On May 31, 2020, journalist Aaron Cantú was detained along with his partner, Kandist Mallett, a columnist for Teen Vogue. Cantú, who was arrested and charged while reporting on the DisruptJ20 protest in Washington, D.C., in 2017 (as described in Chapter 1), had moved to L.A. via Santa Fe in the intervening years. He and Mallett were reporting near their downtown apartment when they were detained along with a group of protesters, and Cantú was put in zip ties. Mallett showed her press pass and was able to convince the police to release them after about 20 minutes.


These incidents and others filling out the cells in Adam Rose’s spreadsheet involved both the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the two separate entities that together patrol the vast L.A. metro area. LAPD serves the city itself, while the Sheriff’s Department is responsible for policing unincorporated cities within L.A. County, along with other cities, jails, and courthouses. A March 31, 2022, report from NPR recounts the agencies’ troubled relationship with the media. Like just about everything else in Los Angeles, the image of the police was shaped by Hollywood; flattering portrayals in film and television and kid-glove coverage in the local press overlooked racist policies and poor relationships with Black and immigrant communities. The tensions exploded into view with the March 1991 beating of Rodney King. More than a year later, the acquittal of the police officers involved in his case sparked violence throughout the city.




Los Angeles, CA

Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Following the unrest and a damaging corruption scandal, the LAPD was put under Justice Department supervision that lasted a dozen years. This was a period of reform, according to the NPR report. But reporters were still roughed up while covering the 2000 Democratic National Convention (see Chapter 2), and periodic incidents involving journalists covering protests resulted in significant monetary settlements.

These long-standing tensions prompted calls for additional legal protections for journalists covering protests and demonstrations. In February 2019, California State Senator Mike McGuire introduced Senate Bill (S.B.) 629 to give journalists covering demonstrations and unlawful assemblies the right to operate behind police lines in areas not open to the general public, the same right already granted to journalists covering natural disasters. The bill cleared the legislature on Aug. 31, 2020.

Police officials and police unions lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto the legislation, claiming that expanded access would compromise their security. They also argued that given the dynamic nature of journalism in the digital age, it would be impossible for police to determine who is and is not entitled to expanded access. While media lobbying groups had backed the bill, rank-and-file journalists were largely unaware of it, according to Rose. The attack on Huang “woke us up to what was right under our nose.”




California State Capitol
Sacramento, CA

Kit Leong/Shutterstock

But two weeks after the attack, on September 30, 2020, Newsom vetoed the bill. He acknowledged that “media access to public gatherings—especially protests—is essential for a functioning democracy, and law enforcement should not be able to interfere with those efforts.” But he argued in a letter sent to the state Senate that the definition of what constituted journalism contained in S.B. 629 was too broad. Extending protection to all “duly authorized” members of the news media involved in “gathering, receiving, or processing information and producing a business card, press badge, or credential or carrying professional broadcasting or recording equipment” would put the police and the public at risk. Such protections, Newsom argued, could conceivably extend to “white nationalists, extreme anarchists, or other fringe groups with an online presence.”



Newsom’s veto was not the end of the story, but it took a new wave of police violence against journalists to get the legislation back on track. This time the protests were linked to the city’s homeless crisis, specifically the removal of a tent city from Echo Park, an oasis of green with a quiet lake and a view of downtown. On March 24, 2021, the L.A. police, acting at the behest of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, launched an operation to clear out the encampment that had grown throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Protesters assembled to block the eviction. Journalists gathered to cover it.

Events played out over two nights, as protesters clashed with police. Police tried to move journalists to a distant staging area, but they objected, arguing their ability to cover events would be compromised. Luis Sinco, a veteran photographer for the L.A. Times, was hit in the leg with a rubber bullet. He called the attack “sadistic.” James Queally, an L.A. Times reporter, was detained and zip-tied despite wearing a credential and identifying himself to the police. The incident was filmed by journalist Lexis-Olivier Ray, who was also detained. So was Kate Cagle, a reporter for Spectrum News One. The LAPD issued a statement later that night including, “As a reminder, members of the media are also to obey the dispersal orders. Members of the media are to use the designated media viewing area.”

All told, 16 journalists were detained while covering the Echo Park eviction, more than a quarter of all detentions of journalists recorded throughout the United States in all of 2021, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Adam Rose’s spreadsheet continued to grow. Once the Echo Park incidents were added, it topped 50 cases, many of them involving journalists of color, according to Rose.

On June 1, 2021, following the arrests at Echo Park, a coalition of more than 20 journalists’ organizations sent a letter to Newsom expressing qualified support for a revised bill, S.B. 98, introduced by McGuire. They were concerned, however, about a “hostile” amendment added in committee that would have made media access contingent on permission from a police commander. The uproar from the California journalism community forced its removal.

Rose, representing the L.A. Press Club, came together with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the L.A. chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Black Journalists to lead the lobbying in favor of the legislation. They dubbed themselves The Rangers, as in Power Rangers, and spent hours on the phone with Senate legislative aides hammering out changes to the bill.



Los Angeles, CA

Matt Gush/Shutterstock

Amendments in the Assembly clarified “that the bill should be interpreted so that journalists are not afforded access inside an incident command post and journalists could be arrested if they were violating other laws, like interfering with officers,” according to Rose. These changes, based on concerns raised by police which Rose called “red herrings,” may have made the bill more palatable to Newsom, though he never explained what changed his perspective. The governor may have also been influenced by the journalists’ public campaign and the videos of police attacking the press, which were widely circulated.

The new bill retained the term “duly authorized” to describe journalists that would be afforded access to protests but omitted the specific criteria (or indicia) that were included in the version which Newsom had vetoed. The meaning of the term duly authorized remained contested, and subject to some level of interpretation by the police. But journalists who supported the bill felt they could make the case that it encompassed both staff and freelance reporters, and that a representative relationship could be established through a variety of means, such as by showing a press badge or business card, wearing distinctive clothing, verbally communicating with officers, or even getting an editor on the phone. On October 9, 2021, Newsom signed S.B. 98 into law.

On December 8, 2021, weeks before the new law was set to take effect, LAPD Chief Michel Moore sent a memo to all field commanders outlining the new policy. Under SB 98, Moore noted, police must provide access to closed areas to any “duly authorized representative of the media.” Officers could not intentionally assault or interfere with members of the media or cite them for failure to disperse or for violating a curfew. Moore defined duly authorized as “those persons, possessing a current, valid credential issued by the [Los Angeles Police] Department or other bona fide law enforcement agency, or other identification establishing duly authorized representation of news media affiliation or employment.” This included freelancers.

While taking a generally broad view, Moore’s memo emphasized the importance of the police-issued press credentials, which was problematic for Rose and others. According to research by Rose and the L.A. Press Club, the LAPD and LASD are two of only a handful of police departments throughout the country to still issue credentials and possibly the only ones that still do fingerprinting and background checks for journalists who apply. “Police all over the nation have given up on issuing press credentials, likely for both administrative and constitutional reasons,” wrote Rose in an internal press club memo. “This appears to be a tacit admission that they can’t and shouldn’t be issuing them. The small number of California departments that cling to the practice are out of step with the national trend.”

Indeed, a 2018 academic survey of cities across America found that only 10 cities still issued press credentials while 53 did not—eight of those having recently abandoned the practice. Police departments said that they didn’t want responsibility for determining who is and is not a journalist and that at a time “when everybody is a journalist,” that task was impossible.

Yet the issue of the credentials kept coming up with the LAPD. Stacy Spell, who served as spokesperson for the department at the time that S.B. 98 was being implemented, often referenced the issue. Spell grumbled about how easy it was to obtain a media credential without any kind of background check and how difficult it was for officers on the skirmish line to decide who was a journalist in the middle of a volatile and tense environment. “It’s very gray at times as to who’s out there and with what intentions,” Spell told NPR.

Months after S.B. 98 went into effect, it underwent its first stress test. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion, thousands of Angelenos took to the streets. Some managed to march onto the 101 freeway, disrupting traffic. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there were 10 press freedom incidents, nearly all involving freelance or independent journalists. Tina-Desiree Berg, an actress, model, and self-described leftist muckraker who routinely chronicled protests, was hit in the head with a baton and thrown to the ground while filming an arrest. Lexis-Olivier Ray, now a staff reporter with the digital outlet L.A. Taco, and freelance journalist Joey Scott were shoved and told to leave an area where they were filming. The L.A. Times reported that some of its journalists were denied access to protest areas.



Los Angeles, CA

Following those incidents, Chief Moore met via Zoom with representatives of the L.A. journalism community, including Rose. In discussing the response to the Dobbs protests, Moore said police were confronting a violent and volatile situation—including one protester who threatened them with an improvised blowtorch made from a spray can. In the mayhem, Moore contended once again, it was difficult for police to determine who was and was not a journalist.

Rose found the meeting frustrating because Moore continued to suggest that a better credentialing system would help solve the problem. Rose pushed back, arguing that determining who is a journalist should be based on behavior. Is the person engaged in newsgathering? Are they breaking any laws? Are they “participating” in an unlawful assembly? Are they seeking to identify themselves as a journalist?

Michael Parker, who served over 32 years in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and developed a specialization in public information, sees the battle over credentials as a stand-in for a broader and deeper cultural divide. After rising to the rank of commander, Parker retired from the LASD in 2017. Since then, he has traveled around the country training police departments on media relations. Parker said he encounters deep resentment towards journalists at the rank-and-file level, which he believes is not only reflective of the broad decline of trust in the media but also a particular police perspective. “Police feel they are constantly getting blamed for things they can’t control,” Parker said. “Journalists are not there to show the best of us.”

From the perspective of police on the skirmish line, there’s little difference between a journalist and a protester holding a cellphone, according to Parker. A journalist might follow all the professional norms, but if a protester gets better and more compelling footage by shoving a camera in an officer’s face while he or she is making an arrest, then that’s what will end up on the nightly news and all over social media. Parker trains police on how not to become a YouTube star. He advises them to ignore anyone filming them and just go about their jobs.



Austin, TX

Rafael Macias/Shutterstock

In the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd protests, the U.S. Congress drafted a resolution to uphold press freedom by ensuring that journalists were exempted from curfews and free of police harassment. It died in the Democratic-controlled House Committee on the Judiciary. The legislature in Michigan introduced a similar measure. It did not pass.

California’s law, S.B. 98, is a unique statute for its specific protection of the rights of journalists covering protests. Despite the challenges and the questions related to its implementation, L.A. Times General Counsel Jeff Glasser, who lobbied to see the law enacted, believes S.B. 98 “is a good law and a good model for the nation.”

“These issues are going to continue to come up, particularly in states which don’t have these kinds of protections in place,” Glasser concluded.



Ch 5: A Presumption of Journalism →