GOP defenders of First Amendment stood by while press freedom was on trial

March 15, 2021 8:00 am

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri testifies at her trial before being acquitted of charges connected with her arrest while covering a protest in Des Moines on May 31, 2020. (Screen shot from Drake Legal Clinic livestream)

Iowa Republican lawmakers, as you’ve read in this space, have been so terribly concerned about the First Amendment this year that some are willing to destroy Iowa’s state universities and potentially harm business recruitment to make a point about free speech.

Senators have passed legislation out of committee to eliminate tenure at state universities, even though they’ve been told that merely debating it would harm the universities’ ability to recruit quality faculty. If the bill were enacted, which I don’t expect to happen, it would shut down important research as professors flee the state.

Lawmakers have also advanced bills that, if enacted, would penalize tech companies doing business in Iowa that enforce their own usage standards by “censoring” dangerous lies and conspiracy theories. They are working diligently to ensure that school faculty and student leaders are trained on the First Amendment (which as I’ve said is a fine idea) but Senate Republicans loaded down the bill with topics those training programs cannot address, such as dealing with white privilege and implicit racial bias.

They’ve called school and university officials on the carpet for offenses against conservative expression and principles. Just last week, several GOP lawmakers on the House Government Oversight committee railed at Ames school officials for holding a Black Lives Matter observance without also scheduling events to celebrate freedom of religion.

So it’s puzzling why these champions of the First Amendment have been silent about an egregious attack on the First Amendment going on just down the hill from the State Capitol at the Polk County Courthouse.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, who by the way is a Democrat, put Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri on trial for allegedly interfering with official acts and failure to disperse at a racial justice protest last summer.  The trial made national news and was seen as a serious threat to freedom of the press, which happens to be part of the First Amendment.

Sahouri was arrested while exercising her duty as a reporter to observe and document an event of public interest.  She repeatedly identified herself as a reporter but was pepper sprayed in the face and handcuffed anyway. Sarcone put her on trial even though there were so many holes in the evidence that even if she hadn’t been a reporter, she probably would have been acquitted.

Sarcone seemed to be claiming in post-trial media interviews that Sahouri was being treated like anyone else would be in the same situation, regardless of her status as a reporter. She wasn’t, however: Other reporters who were present, including Katie Akin who now works for Iowa Capital Dispatch, and a TV news crew, were not arrested. Shameless prosecutors even used news footage during the trial to try to show jurors what happened, without acknowledging that without a free press, their own alleged evidence would not exist.

Even though Sahouri was found not guilty, the entire situation could put a serious chill on important news coverage of events of clear public interest, including the conduct of protesters and the police. Even though the Register won the case, going to court is an expensive and time-consuming process that not every news outlet can afford.

Up on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, GOP lawmakers were busy castigating Ames school officials for daring to say Black Lives Matter. They were also passing bills creating felony charges for merely being present at a riot.

March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, which is dedicated to fostering freedom of information, including open public meetings and records. If the government oversight committees of the Iowa House and Senate are serious about defending the First Amendment, they should celebrate Sunshine Week by bringing Sarcone in to discuss his decision to trample on the freedom of the press.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.