Misdemeanor charges filed against photojournalist arrested at UT-Austin protest

Carlos, a FOX 7 photojournalist, lays on the ground as he is arrested while covering a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024. (Julius Shieh For The Texas Tribune, Julius Shieh For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Department of Public Safety is pursuing two misdemeanor charges against a broadcast news cameraman arrested last week while he was covering a tumultuous pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin.

DPS has accused Carlos Sanchez of hitting an officer with his camera and has charged him in Austin Municipal Court with misdemeanor assault and impeding a public servant. Sanchez told reporters as he was being arrested that he didn’t hit anyone. The pair of misdemeanors come after the Travis County attorney dismissed criminal trespass charges against 57 people arrested at the April 24 protest — and after DPS’ short-lived attempt to charge Sanchez with a felony.

DPS' continued pursuit of criminal charges against Sanchez has drawn ire from a litany of journalism groups and free press advocates.

DPS filed a written statement accusing Sanchez, a photojournalist for FOX 7 in Austin, of assaulting an officer — a second degree felony. On April 29, DPS recalled that affidavit and later filed the lower-level charges against Sanchez.

Sachez’ legal team said they learned DPS recalled the felony charge after they attempted to surrender Sanchez earlier this week. Gerry Morris, Sanchez’ lawyer, said in a statement that the case may ultimately be heard before a jury.

“Mr. Sanchez was performing an important news gathering function during a chaotic event when he inadvertently bumped into a police officer. He did not commit a crime,” Morris said. “We look forward to someone taking [an] unbiased look at the evidence and exonerating Mr. Sanchez.”

More than 40 journalism organizations and First Amendment advocates denounced Sanchez' arrest, calling on DPS to drop the charges and the county attorney to dismiss them.

"In leveling an unwarranted charge of assault against a journalist who was simply doing his job, Texas authorities themselves commit an assault – on the public’s First Amendment right to be informed by a free and unfettered press," the groups, including the Society of Professional Journalists, said. "And in charging a member of the press with interfering with a police officer’s duties, they send the message that police are free to interfere with journalists as they exercise their constitutionally protected right to inform the public."

On May 1, DPS said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that Sanchez met with special agents with the agency that morning. DPS said he was charged with two misdemeanors and he was then booked into the Travis County Jail.

Sanchez’ lawyer said he was quickly released.

In a previous statement, DPS accused him of hitting a trooper with his camera.

“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 put in place for the safety of others,” Sheridan Nolen, DPS press secretary, said in a Friday statement.

According to the arrest affidavits filed April 30, a state trooper reported that Sanchez lunged forward toward the back of another trooper and struck him in the lower head and neck area, which is not protected by a helmet or body armor. The trooper who Sanchez collided with, reported that he felt sore from the incident after the fact.

Kevin McPherson, news director at FOX 7, said last week the organization was not able to comment

The Society of Professional Journalists disagreed with DPS' depiction of the incident.

“It’s crystal clear from every angle of videos capturing the incident that Sanchez did not intentionally hit anyone while covering protests at the University of Texas at Austin last week,” SPJ National President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins said in a statement.

Blaize-Hopkins said the two new misdemeanor charges were unconstitutional and vindictive.

“Let’s call this what it is — blatant retaliation and intimidation,” Blaize-Hopkins said in a Tuesday statement on social media. “DPS is trying to make an example out [of] this photographer to scare other journalists from covering these highly publicized protests on campuses across TX.”

Multiple videos from the scene posted on the social media site X show a crush of protesters, officers and journalists chaotically moving across the campus’ South Lawn as DPS troopers clear the area. It’s not clear who filmed the videos. Sanchez, loaded with a large shoulder camera and backpack, can be seen near the edge of a line of troopers pushing the crowd off the lawn.

From multiple angles of the melee captured in several videos, including one filmed by the journalist, it’s clear his camera collides with an officer during the scuffle.

Video then shows a trooper pulling the photojournalist’s backpack and, along with another officer, throwing him to the ground. As the cameraman was being led away by a state trooper, he said to KXAN that he told law enforcement he was with the press. He also said he was being pushed, but didn’t say who was pushing him.

“They were pushing me and … they say I hit an officer,” he says in a video posted on X. “I didn’t hit an officer. They were pushing. They were pushing me.”

The author of the post did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune.

Sanchez’ camera continued rolling after he was slammed to the ground.

“I was moving, I was moving,” Sanchez can be heard saying on the footage from his camera. He explained that he was pushed and almost fell.

The officer leading him away said, "I wasn't there to see it."

FOX 7 reported the photojournalist was booked in Travis County Jail after 8 p.m. on April 24 and was released before noon on April 25.

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza announced on April 26 that law enforcement lacked probable cause in the 57 criminal trespass cases stemming from protest arrests.

In an April 25 statement, Kelley Shannon, executive director for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said that the photojournalist was charged with criminal trespass, along with the protesters who were arrested.

Shannon denounced the arrest and called on law enforcement to respect the rights of free press.

“The police should not interfere with a working journalist doing his job covering the news in a public place,” Shannon said.

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