Los Angeles County has agreed to pay $700,000 to a public radio reporter who was slammed to the ground and arrested by sheriff’s deputies while covering a protest in 2020.
Josie Huang, a radio journalist for LAist, reached the settlement agreement with Los Angeles County and the sheriff’s department on Tuesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced.
The settlement, which was formally approved by Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors, marks the conclusion of pre-litigation talks between government lawyers and the press freedom group, which represents Huang.
“The settlement — to the Reporters Committee’s knowledge, the largest award to an individual journalist whose rights were violated in connection with protest coverage in 2020 — sets a new benchmark for journalists arrested or assaulted by law enforcement,” the reporters committee said in a statement. “The agreement is also significant for its training requirements, intended to help prevent local law enforcement officials from unlawfully arresting and assaulting journalists in the future.”
The settlement also mandates that the sheriff’s department personnel be briefed on the press’ rights ahead of patrol assignments and directs the sheriff’s department to send written guidance to all employees regarding the laws and policies that shape their exchanges with the press.
“This settlement upholds the rights of journalists and helps ensure that what happened to me won’t happen to other reporters,” Huang said in a statement. “My arrest was traumatic, but I hope that some good can still come of this experience.”
“Journalists in Los Angeles County should be able to record police activity in public without fear of unlawful arrest,” she added. “As the public’s eyes and ears, we must be able to cover protests and document how law enforcement responds to those protests.”
On September 12, 2020, Huang was in Lynwood, California, covering a press conference held by then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva. While returning to her car, Huang filmed sheriff’s deputies responding to a peaceful protest. Following the arrest of a protester at the scene, a deputy moved in Huang’s direction and asked that she “back up.”
Huang was not given time to comply with the orders and was slammed to the ground and later cited for obstructing a peace officer, the reporters committee said. Two LASD deputies also stepped on Huang’s phone in an attempt to break it, the reporter said.
Huang was jailed following her arrest and, while in detention, another journalist recovered her working phone from where the deputies had left it, the reporters committee said. Sheriff’s officials made a litany of false accusations against Huang’s behavior in the wake of the incident, alleging she failed to identify herself as a reporter at the time and had “interfered with the arrest,” the press freedom group said.
Four days after her arrest, the reporters committee and a group of 65 media organizations urged the sheriff’s department to drop the charges brought against Huang. The sheriff’s department instead presented Huang’s case to the county’s district attorney and undertook an investigation to demonstrate Huang’s guilt in a bid to persuade the district attorney to prosecute, the reporters committee said.
A week later, the DA’s office said it would not bring charges against Huang, saying that evidence showed Huang did not appear to be obstructing the deputies’ duties. In May, a court found Huang to be factually innocent of the cited offense, court documents show.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told CNN that it has conducted a “thorough internal investigation” into the incident and is taking the appropriate administrative actions.
“We understand the role of the media during newsworthy events and make every effort to accommodate them with a designated press area and appropriate access,” the sheriff’s spokesperson said.
The spokesperson did not respond when asked what repercussions, if any, were meted out to the deputies who falsely accused Huang of obstructing a peace officer.