University of Tennessee Police Violate Independent Media’s Rights at Public Protest
The following post and video were shared with the CopBlock Network by Christian Alexander of BackRoomKnox.com, via the CopBlock.org Submissions Page. Along with the description below, Christian stated:
The police chief has apologized, but not the University. I would love to get a consensus on whether I was right or wrong from your audience. Maybe it can be a teaching tool for being on campus.
Date of Incident: November 10, 2016
Officers Involved: Officer O’Neal, Officer Underwood, Officer McCarter
Department Involved: University of Tennessee Police
Phone Number: (865) 974-3114
Fax Number: (865) 974-4072
Short version: (long version below) I was not able to go on a public university campus to film a protest. I was stopped and asked if I was a student, and they let me know only students, faculty and staff were allowed to be at the protest. The officers were respectful, while stabbing me in the back violating on my rights. I showed them my media credentials, but they still put me in a free speech zone. I even had a shift supervisor tell me the same. “It’s a public university, but private property.” I ultimately refused their orders under threat of criminal arrest-as you can see in the video. At this point, I did not know what the outcome would be. Would I be arrested or trespassed later? Or was I in the right and the law needed to be fixed? I’m still seeking guidance on both.
I am writing in regards to the violation of my first and fourteenth amendment rights on the University of Tennessee campus, Knoxville Tennessee. I have received an apology from the UT Police Department. I received no apology from the University itself.
Free speech zones are illegal on public campuses. University of Tennessee Police Officers and official policies, practices, or customs resulted in a deprivation of my rights. Because the protest was not an official “event of national significance,” I cannot be forced, as a citizen or media, into a separate area, under duress.
“The First Amendment represents “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964). Our institutions of higher learning play a central role in a system of freedom of expression because “[t]he college…surround-ing (sic) environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” Healy, 408 U.S. at180. In this regard, “[t]he first danger to liberty lies in granting the State the power” to limit freedom of expression in contravention of the “background and tradition of thought and experiment that is at the center of our intellectual and philosophic tradition.” Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 835 (1995). The First Amendment provides in pertinent part that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” and is applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.”
This past Friday a group(s) held a protest regarding the election of Donald Trump.
The Knox News Sentinal wrote:
“The protest, loosely comprised of the campus’ Diversity Matters student coalition, started near the amphitheater outside the humanities building at 12:30 p.m. The group marched along around the building and up pedestrian walkway.”
Trying to get the law or officers’ orders on record…I spoke to Officer A. O’neal. She stated “They just call us and tell us what we need to do.” She was speaking of campus policies and customs. I let her know that you don’t need to go through any procedure to be on public property.
Soon after speaking with Officer O’neal, I headed to the protest that was taking place in the walkway on campus. Before I was able to get there, I was approached by Officer McCarter. His first words were, “Let’s go down here for a minute. You do not have permission to be here.” He pointed to and told me to go to a “free speech zone.”
I asked why I could not go on my way to the protest. I had planned on recording the events. I do not actively participate in protests as a protestor. I do not believe I have ever been a protestor. I have been to many protests to report on them. I was not asked by the officer if I was protesting or going to be protesting. I had no signs. I only record the events.
He said that I was not affiliated with the university. We verbally disagreed on whether or not I could be there. Even though I knew I was on a public property, I asked if I was on public property for verification. The officer stated, “This is private property. It belongs to the State of Tennessee.” Again, I said, “Then it’s public property.” His response, “No Sir.” He said that I had to be student, staff, faculty or be here to conduct business. Again, university policy. I asked what happens next. He said I needed to go to the free speech zone, which was not near the protest. I asked what would happen if I did not do that. He said that I could be taken to jail for criminal trespass.
My press credentials were visible on my neck the entire day, and I was the only one at the event or at my location with both a photo ID and press credentials on my neck. My media credentials include my photo, date of expiration, address, signature and my affiliations and large bold letters PRESS. He looked at my credentials and sent me to an eight ft. long “free speech zone.” The officer then mentioned I needed to go stay with my friend. The “friend,” I had seen only once before in my life when I was covering the election. I said he was not with me. I was only covering him because that is where the news was at the time. This was clarified, and I was still told to go to the free speech zone by officer McCarter. I was respectful, but I was forced to go to the free speech zone as I verbally protested to the officer. My rights were violated and under threat of arrest, again, I had no choice but to follow the officer’s commands in order to get more clarification and offer respect to the officer.
Officer R. A. McCarter came back some time later, and he said, “talked with my sarge.” Officer McCarter stated that I needed to call (865) 974-3174 to get permission to be up here. Again, procedures of the university. Officer McCarter stated, “I told her [his sarge] that you are press. There is no headway with it.” He then pointed out the free speech zone which was far from the protest. I took my press credentials off my neck, out of the badge holder, and showed him again, and I said I was not there to protest. He then voluntarily stated that Knox News notified them. Implying that media should get permission before working a breaking story.
(Knox News had 318 comments 565 shares of their coverage of one of a previous protests. I had 9519 comments 17,275 shares of the same protest for a total of 1,754,515 views via Facebook, not including my other pages with additional views. In the digital age, reporting is no longer confined to America’s traditional newsrooms. As such, threats to press freedom threaten anyone who seeks to share information about official actions using a cellphone, social media service or website.)
Mr. McCarter then stated, “I was told, so this is it. You can stay down here.” (Pointing to a “free speech zone.”) about six to eight feet…” officer McCarter stated.
I asked for a supervisor of the supervisor for one more clarification and a chance for them to correct what should have been obvious First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment violations – under threat of criminal trespass and arrest. After an additional long wait in the illegal “free speech zone,” The supervisor for the shift, Officer Underwood, stated that the university is public but private property. He again stated the custom that the university is only open to students, faculty, staff, and invited guests.
I discovered my main camera was now out of space after using it on these highly illegal, disconcerting, disheartening, and defeating confrontations at the University of Tennessee. I then had to use a backup camera whose sound is not good compared to my main camera. It also took up about an hour of valuable time that I missed to cover the beginning of the sit in, as I was the first reporter on scene.
That said, assuming a protest is in a public forum, as this protest was, reporters don’t need credentials to cover it. We enjoy a right of access along with the public. Media does not need permission to be there, nor do they need permission to engage there in news gathering activities. The kinds of actions taken out on me alone can send a harsh message: gather legal video at your own demise.
I missed, but heard with my ears, the main news that I wanted to get, but did not get the video I needed as I was detained in the “free speech zone.” At this time, I was extremely upset and flabbergasted at the actions of these officers. After about an hour, I went on to campus in the public area anyway. The entire time I was on campus I was under duress and threat of arrest. This is not a good way to gather news, and I am thankful that I did not have a heart attack each time the officers came near me. I also stayed up all night in fear of officers arriving at my house to arrest me.
I recorded evidence of three assaults at this protest. Two current students and one non student were assaulted at the event. Two have filed police reports. The female victim of the assault sought out my news page, and I will send her the video evidence. I also have video of this same gentleman inciting violence on campus, at the rock. It involved an assault. Police were called. The victim was given an apology and no charges were filed.
I am seeking help via social media and other organizations to help me put together this matter and to understand who did right, who did wrong and what can I do to fix it or help someone else in the future.