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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Free speech, press freedom orgs urge DA not to prosecute Stanford student journalist

Dilan Gohill, who works at the student-run Stanford Daily newspaper, is facing criminal charges after he was arrested during a pro-Palestine protest on campus earlier this month.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — More than 25 free speech and press freedom organizations are urging law enforcement officials not to press charges against a Stanford University journalist arrested while reporting on a protest earlier this month.

The First Amendment Coalition and the Student Press Law Center, alongside 24 free speech protection organizations, demanded in a public letter Thursday that the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office drop its case against student journalist Dilan Gohill, a first-year student journalist with the Stanford Daily who was arrested at a pro-Palestine protest on campus on June 5.

Police that day arrested 13 people, including Gohill, after students broke into and occupied an administrative building at Stanford University.

Despite providing police identification showing he was a student journalist at the Stanford Daily, Gohill was booked on charges of felony burglary, vandalism and conspiracy. Gohill was also wearing a red Stanford Daily sweatshirt, and protesting students told police that he was not part of the protest.

In its letter to District Attorney Jeff Rosen, the organizations said Gohill was clearly on assignment and had published breaking news stories about protest activity.

”Gohill’s coverage of the events helped inform the campus and broader community of protester demands and conduct, and of the university and law enforcement response,” the coalition said in the letter. “Given these circumstances, it is difficult to see how charging Gohill with multiple felonies serves the interests of justice."

"As a journalist reporting on breaking news, he lacked the requisite intent for the crimes he is accused of committing," the letter continued. "The Israel-Hamas war and related protest movement is one of the biggest news stories of our time, especially on college campuses.”

Sean Webby, a spokesperson for the DA's office, told Courthouse News on Thursday that the DA did not yet have "reports and evidence from law enforcement with which to evaluate cases and make legal decisions about possible criminal charges." The Stanford Daily and the Stanford president and provost's offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

David Loy, president of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, said in an interview Thursday that free speech organizations oppose the arrest of any journalist doing their job.

“We just don’t think it’s in the interest of justice to prosecute a reporter for reporting the news," Loy said. "There’s no dispute that Dilan was reporting news, and we don’t think that justifies a criminal prosecution."

In a statement of their own on Thursday, Gohill’s attorneys said pressing charges against the student would make no sense because he did not vandalize property or aid protesters. They also claimed that while he was held in jail, Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies tried to access his phone.

“For a university renowned for churning out some of the brightest minds, Stanford leadership’s calls for the criminal prosecution of a young journalist covering a protest is decidedly dim-witted,” attorney Max Szabo said.

"In this country we don't arrest journalists because we don't like what they're writing about," Nick Rowley, co-founder of Trial Lawyers for Justice who is also representing Gohill, said in the letter. "Law enforcement and the university alike need to take immediate steps to correct this injustice."

“Seeking accountability for the protesters is one thing," Gohill attorney Jean-Paul Jassy was also quoting as saying in the letter, "but advocating that a journalist face criminal consequences for doing his job is at odds with an institution of higher learning and the university’s own motto that ‘the winds of freedom blow.’"

The controversy began on June 5, when Stanford students barricaded themselves inside the building housing the president’s office, as Gohill and another Stanford Daily reporter first reported. The students demanded the school divest from weapons manufacturers, disclose endowment investments and drop disciplinary and criminal charges against pro-Palestine students.

Officers from the Stanford Department of Public Safety and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office entered the building that morning and arrested a group of students, including Gohill. Gohill was transported to the Santa Clara County Jail and held for approximately 15 hours before being released on a $20,000 bail.

Stanford President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez issued a statement denouncing the protest. They said arrested students would be suspended and barred from graduating, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.

But in good news for Gohill, the university reinstated Gohill as reporter and revoked his suspension, the Stanford Daily noted in an op-ed.

“In light of the university’s decision, we now ask the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office to decline pursuing criminal charges against Dilan, which would be plainly unfounded,” the Daily's editorial board wrote. “Independent student journalism benefits the entire Stanford community, and The Daily takes seriously its role upholding the highest professional and ethical standards.”

Still, in a statement on June 10, Stanford University stressed that Gohill's arrest was atypical because, as a reporter, he had no legal right to be in the locked building.

California Penal Code 409.7 — enacted to protect the rights of journalists to report on protest activities — does not protect the right to break and enter into or trespass inside a locked private building, the university said.

“We believe that the Daily reporter reporting from inside the building acted in violation of the law and university policies and fully support having him be criminally prosecuted and referred to Stanford’s Office of Community Standards along with the other students,” the university said in its statement. “We suggest that the Daily provide its reporters and editors with stronger training so that they better understand and appreciate their responsibilities as well as rights as journalists."

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Categories / First Amendment, Law, Media

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