Detention of independent journalist and activists at UCLA draws outcry over press freedom

More protests at UCLA on May 6 resulted with police arresting 44 people.
More protests at UCLA on May 6 resulted with police arresting 44 people.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
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An independent journalist and prominent police critics were among the dozens of people detained by police at the UCLA campus amid ongoing protests of the Gaza war on Monday morning — raising objections from legal experts and press organizations.

Journalist Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, who has a long history of covering protest movements in Los Angeles and whose video work in particular has been featured in various mainstream news outlets, was detained — with his hands zip-tied behind his back — while observing the detention of dozens of others in a campus parking garage, according to video of the incident.

William Gude, a prominent police critic in L.A. who regularly records officers on the street for his many social media followers, was also among those detained, according to a livestream he recorded that was posted to YouTube.


The university said 44 people were arrested but did not release further details. Its Police Department did not immediately respond to questions about the situation Monday, or about a possible curfew.

Dozens of protesters were arrested at UCLA and UC San Diego on Monday, seeming to signal heightened enforcement on campuses.

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As of Friday afternoon, L.A. city prosecutors had not received “any submissions from law enforcement arising out of the protests at USC or UCLA for consideration,” said Ivor Pine, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Beckner-Carmitchel said he spent several hours in custody, during which he repeatedly told members of the UCLA Police Department that he was a member of the press. At one point, he said, an officer told him to “shut up. That’s not our problem.”

L.A. County Sheriff's brought in their bus to transport those arrested at UCLA on May 6.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Beckner-Carmitchel said he first had contact with campus police around 6 a.m., when he was stopped for “violating curfew” but let off with a warning. He entered a parking garage and filmed a group of at least 30 protesters being detained, at which point someone came up from behind and placed in him in “flex cuffs,” effectively zip-ties.

Officers later told Beckner-Carmitchel he was being held on conspiracy to commit burglary, an allegation he said they did not explain to him.


“I cannot stress enough, I had no contact with the students,” he said. “I don’t know what they were planning, or if they were even planning anything.”

Eventually, after being driven across the city to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys jail and fingerprinted multiple times, officers told Beckner-Carmitchel a mistake had been made.

“They said it turns out that you are a member of the accredited press, to which I replied that’s what I’ve been saying for the last [expletive] four hours,” Beckner-Carmitchel said.

Beckner-Carmitchel said it was impossible to ignore the stark disparity between how fast campus police moved to arrest journalists and activists on Monday with how slow they were to respond to a violent mob attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment last week.

“I was there on Tuesday. … I watched a bunch of grown men assault protesters for four sustained hours with absolutely no arrests. The last hour law enforcement literally watched some of the worst of the violence happen,” he said. “It’s pretty ridiculous that I’ve had more law enforcement action than those guys.”

An LAPD spokeswoman referred all questions to UCLA.

The detentions brought immediate demands for their release from others.

“Unless you can provide an explanation, please ensure both Beckner-Carmitchel and Gude are immediately released,” Adam Rose, press rights chair for the Los Angeles Press Club, wrote in an email to campus leaders.


In her own email to campus officials, Susan E. Seager, who directs the Press Freedom Project at UC Irvine School of Law and represents independent journalists in court, called Beckner-Carmitchel’s detention illegal — including under a recent California law expanding journalists’ rights at protests — and demanded his release.

“Sean had the right to film police even if police had set up police lines or even if they had declared a curfew,” she said in an interview with The Times.

Seager also warned that it would be illegal for police to search any of Beckner-Carmitchel’s devices.

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“It appears he was arrested for simply filming UCLA police conducting arrests or completing arrests of students in a public parking lot,” Seager said. “The arrest of Sean is illegal, period. He wasn’t interfering with police.”

Similar 1st Amendment protections are also enjoyed by other “citizen journalists” such as Gude and legal observers, she said.

In addition to Beckner-Carmitchel’s detention and his own, Gude’s video showed the detention of Gina Viola, another prominent progressive activist and former mayoral candidate. Gude announced his release on X around 3:30 p.m., saying police told him they planned to charge him with a felony but then let him go.


“Reporters and legal observers were SPECIFICALLY TARGETED because we were documenting the arrest,” he said on X.

Beckner-Carmitchel said Viola was also released Monday afternoon, but it was unclear what, if any, crime she was booked on suspicion of.

Audio from the stream that continued after the image went black when Gude was detained suggested legal observers were also detained.

Legal observers are often lawyers trained to watch over interactions between protesters and police and to watch for rights violations while refraining from direct protest action themselves. Arresting them raises similar concerns as arresting journalists — namely that it stifles independent oversight of police at such events.

Gude’s video showed a line of detained people seated against a parking garage wall as he and other independent journalists and legal observers watched. Some of the observers had on bright green hats — a recognizable item worn by National Lawyers Guild. The guild did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gude said in the video that he was outside when he saw police start driving into the parking structure. He followed and observed officers starting to detain people on the structure’s third floor, he said.


As his stream continued, sheriff’s deputies arrived and joined what appear to be campus police, surrounding the observers. Officers then detained Beckner-Carmitchel.

“He’s got a press badge on,” Gude objected.

Officers then detained and zip-tied Viola, and then Gude.

“Put your hands behind your back,” one said to Gude.

“Why am I being detained?” Gude asked. “You’re detaining journalists.”

Gude’s video then went black, but audio continued as he railed against the officers.

“We’ll see how this looks — you guys detaining press members because you don’t want anybody seeing what’s happening,” he said. “You don’t want the world to see what’s happening, so you know what, shut off their cameras so nobody can see.”

Police agencies have consistently drawn complaints for detaining and arresting journalists at protests in recent years.

The LAPD in particular has faced criticism for detaining journalists, including at the clearing of a homeless encampment in Echo Park in 2021. Seager represents two Knock LA journalists suing the department over their arrests. A detained Times journalist was released without charges.

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Beckner-Carmitchel was also arrested during the Echo Park incident. When a Times reporter contacted an LAPD spokesman to inform them that Beckner-Carmitchel was a working journalist, the spokesman said Beckner-Carmitchel’s credentials were not valid.

The LAPD also faced accusations of targeted harassment of a journalist when officers arrested, and later pursued charges against, journalist Lexis-Olivier Ray during raucous celebrations downtown after the Dodgers 2020 World Series victory. Police made 18 arrests during the fracas, but the reporter was the only person the city attorney’s office filed failure-to-disperse charges against. The charges were later dropped.


Gov. Gavin Newsom later signed a law expanding journalists’ right to cover protests, and the LAPD adopted a policy asserting the right of journalists from major media organizations and independent outlets to cover protests and enter areas that police have blocked off.

However, the LAPD and other police agencies have been accused of continuing to violate the rights of journalists covering protests. Similar complaints from the news media have been made against police agencies nationwide.