Press freedom advocates want change following Austin photojournalist protest arrest

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A FOX 7 photojournalist was released from jail Thursday — one of dozens of people arrested during a pro-Palestine protest at the University of Texas at Austin — charged with “criminal trespass,” according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“They said that I hit an officer. I didn’t hit an officer. They were pushing me. They were pushing me,” the photojournalist, who identified himself as Carlos, told KXAN as he was led away in handcuffs Wednesday afternoon. “This never happened to me, you know what I mean? I was just covering things … I told them I was press.”

Local photojournalist among 57 arrested at UT protest

The arrest is sparking condemnation from press freedom and First Amendment advocates in Texas and across the country, including calls for a meeting with TxDPS and new legislation.

Society of Professional Journalists

“My first reaction to seeing that is this is a First Amendment violation and we cannot stand by and allow this to happen,” said the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, who spoke out about the incident on X and shared her thoughts with KXAN.

“This is a journalist who has First Amendment protections to be able to observe this very highly publicized news story that’s really unfolding across the country at college campuses,” she said. “It is the right of every journalist to be able to be that first draft of history and inform the public about what’s happening and also to hold the powerful account.”

SPJ is the oldest journalism organization representing journalists in the U.S. The organization developed a code of ethics that is widely adopted by newsrooms across the country, including KXAN.

Blaize-Hopkins has requested a phone call with TxDPS Director Steven McCraw to discuss the arrest. One of the questions she wants to ask: “Does he feel like his law enforcement officers have the right to be able to prevent journalists from doing their First Amendment protected jobs?”

“I would say the answer is no,” she said. “That should never happen.”

Video taken by onlookers show the photojournalist, who was on assignment covering the protest and streaming live at the time, directly near law enforcement when he is thrown backwards to the ground.

TxDPS released a statement to KXAN on Friday saying the case has now been turned over to DPS’ Criminal Investigations Division for “further investigation.”

“Multiple videos — many of which are readily available on social media — show the photojournalist among the protesters as law enforcement officers work to disperse the group. He is seen hitting a DPS Trooper in front of him with his camera before Troopers pull him back and take him to the ground to arrest him,” said TxDPS press secretary Sheridan Nolen.

“As a law enforcement agency, upholding the laws and freedom of the people of this state is our number one priority. The department believes strongly in a journalist’s right to cover events of the day in a safe way; however, that does not except a person from following the law or the rules that have been out in place for the safety of others,” Nolen added in a statement. “While the department understands the need to be on-site, it is never acceptable to interfere with official police duties and assaulting an officer of the law — no matter the degree — will never be tolerated.”

The photojournalist was not charged with assaulting an officer.

Asked if he was too close to law enforcement, Blaize-Hopkins, who watched online videos of the arrest, said he was where he was supposed to be.

“When you are reporting on a story, your job is to get as close to the story as possible, to be the eyes and the ears of the people that can’t be there,” she said. “That is our job as journalists and what I saw from the video was a television news photographer doing exactly what he’s supposed to do … When I hear people say, ‘You know, he shouldn’t have been that close,’ well, I would argue that’s literally where he should be. That is where the story is and his job is to get the story and get that information out to the people so they can see what’s happening on the ground when they can’t be there.”

KXAN reached out to FOX Television Stations and UT Austin about this arrest but did not immediately hear back.

Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas said it “strongly denounces” the arrest of the news photographer.

“The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which stands up for the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press, calls on law enforcement to respect those rights,” said executive director Kelley Shannon. “That includes peaceful protest and news gathering. The police should not interfere with a working journalist doing his job covering the news in a public place.”

Committee to Protect Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Texas authorities to “immediately” drop all charges and “take steps to ensure journalists can do their jobs safely and without interference.”

“We are very concerned by the violent arrest of a FOX 7 Austin journalist who was simply doing his job covering matters of public interest,” said CPJ’s program director in New York, Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “CPJ’s email to the Austin police public information office requesting comment did not immediately receive a response.”

California law a model?

Blaize-Hopkins points to a 2021 California law SPJ helped pass, known as Senate Bill 98, which protects journalists from law enforcement interference while covering civil unrest. She said the law allows reporters to “get the information out to the public without the fear of being detained or arrested by police.”

The law expanded existing protections for journalists covering natural disaster areas in the state, allowing them to stay in place at their own risk during evacuations, Blaize-Hopkins said.

She would like to see a similar law adopted in Texas and beyond.

“I would say it’s a template for what states should really adopt throughout the country,” she added. “I think it’s high time that maybe even a federal law that looks similar to that is in place to protect journalists, to ensure that the public can remain informed. Because without an informed public, our very democracy is at stake … We have to keep fighting for democracy. It is not a given. And, I think when we see things like this, we have to stand up and say something.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to KXAN Austin.