Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies patrol the area around St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, California, where two of their fellow deputies underwent treatment after being shot in September 2020. Josie Huang, a reporter with the Los Angeles area's National Public Radio affiliate, was tackled and arrested outside the hospital that night as she attempted to film deputies responding to a group of protesters. (Jason Armond/The Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images)
Three years after a reporter with the Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate was tackled by sheriff's deputies and arrested while covering a protest, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP has helped secure a $700,000 settlement that the firm is hailing as a win for press freedom.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved the agreement in November following pre-litigation negotiations between government lawyers and attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Gibson Dunn, which represented the reporter, Josie Huang, who works for the Southern California NPR station LAist 89.3, formerly KPCC.
The $700,000 settlement is the largest award to an individual journalist whose rights were violated in connection with protest coverage in 2020, according to the committee. In addition to the cash settlement, the agreement requires training for Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies to prevent them from unlawfully arresting and assaulting journalists in the future.
"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. As the public's eyes and ears, we must be able to cover protests and document how law enforcement responds to those protests."
Gibson Dunn litigator Michael Dore took the case at the request of the Reporters Committee a few months after Huang's arrest in September 2020. Dore has a long history with the organization; he has worked with it on about 10 other cases over the years.
During an interview with Law360 this week, Dore said he admired the work that journalists do.
"I feel very strongly about freedom of speech and the First Amendment," Dore said. "I don't think that makes me incredibly unique, but I have a tremendous respect for people who, when there's trouble, it's their job to go to it, not away from it. I consider law enforcement in that [same] respect. I was a federal prosecutor and have worked with and asked amazing people to put their lives on the line to testify. And I've worked with journalists and it's the same deal. If there's something going on, they go to it. They document it for the rest of us, while I'm running the other direction. I've always appreciated that, appreciated the importance of it."
Dore first heard about Huang's case from news reports shortly after her arrest. He said he was shocked to learn of a reporter being arrested, but initially believed what the sheriff's department was saying: she had been interfering with deputies doing their job. Only after he took the case did he learn the true facts.
"There were a lot of really troubling events happening in 2020 [with various protests] and certainly the one that happened to Josie was pretty egregious," Dore said.
On the night of Sept. 12, 2020, Huang was covering a press conference held by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in Lynwood, California, to provide information on the ambush shooting of two sheriff's deputies in their patrol vehicle earlier that day. As she returned to her vehicle, she witnessed deputies responding to a group of protesters on the street and began filming the interaction on her phone.
KPCC reporter Josie Huang captured this video on her cellphone as she was tackled and arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responding to a group of demonstrators in September 2020. (Courtesy of Gibson Dunn)
When deputies arrested one protester and put him inside a police vehicle, another deputy moved toward Huang and shouted at her to "back up." Before she had time to comply, deputies tackled Huang and threw her to the ground. Despite repeatedly shouting that she was a journalist and wearing an official press badge, they arrested her for obstructing a peace officer and took her to jail for the night.
Deputies also attempted to break her phone by stomping on it, then left it in the street. Fellow journalists who witnessed Huang's arrest quickly retrieved the phone, where the footage she shot was still intact, including her being tackled and repeatedly saying she was a journalist.
The Reporters Committee and a coalition of 65 media organizations called on the sheriff's department to drop all charges against Huang, but Villanueva refused. Instead, a few weeks later, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office announced that it would not prosecute Huang, saying it did not appear that she was intentionally trying to interfere with deputies.
Dore was especially upset about the false and misleading information he said the sheriff's department put out about Huang's arrest.
"They were putting out numerous tweets and Sheriff Villanueva was engaging in something of a public relations campaign that was effectively attacking her professionalism, framing her as an activist as opposed to engaging in news gathering as a professional journalist," he said. "That had a pretty lasting effect, I think, on some people's perceptions of what happened that wasn't accurate."
That made Dore even more determined to help Huang. He investigated the matter thoroughly over the following months and discussed options for recourse with Huang.
Dore also filed a complaint with the county, a necessary step before filing a lawsuit. He said he and outside counsel for Los Angeles County engaged in talks on and off over the course of two years, hearing out each other's respective views on the situation.
"We were able to work things out as part of a lengthy discussion with the county that eventually resulted in the settlement without ever filing a lawsuit," Dore said.
They ultimately reached an informal agreement in July 2023, but it took until November before it was final as multiple others had to sign off on it, including the Los Angeles County Claims Board and then the Board of Supervisors.
"The settlement was a very affirming result in that Josie is an impeccable journalist who was treated very poorly. She had and has an interest not just in some benefit to herself, but in making things better for journalists more generally," Dore said. "It wasn't just any financial recovery, but the trainings and the bulletins that need to be circulated among deputies in advance of encounters like this, protests like this."
While she did not file a lawsuit, Huang did petition Los Angeles County Superior Court for a "finding of factual innocence," a mechanism allowed under California law for someone to try to clear the record of an arrest. That petition was granted in May 2023.
"The ability to get the finding of factual innocence, it puts down on paper what we all knew — that she didn't do anything wrong," Dore said. "Those aspects of her results were really a pure positive. She went through a lot to get there and I was very happy that, with the Reporters Committee, we were able to help her arrive at what we think is a good result."
A New Jersey native, Dore fell in love with California as a child during a trip to the Rose Bowl, finally moving to the Golden State after earning his law degree at the University of Virginia School of Law. He said he's grown disturbed in recent years by increased attacks on the press, an institution that he grew up thinking was sacred.
"It was an attack on [Huang] and it was also an attack on journalists and it calls into question what is actually happening," Dore said. "People are misrepresenting what happened and what someone's motives were and whether or not they've got skin in the game or they're treating it like their profession. It's really disheartening to see that. It strikingly has become all the more important to try and defend journalism and the First Amendment freedom of speech and rights I took for granted."
He said he was glad to have done some small bit to help change the narrative and protect the press.
"One of the things we're hopeful with the settlement more generally is it helps prevent this from happening again," Dore said. "Not just the arrest but everything that happened afterward, trying to foster a respect for journalism and the work that they do, the constitutionally protected work that they do. Hopefully the settlement plays a part in making things better. It's not on its own going to do anything, but everything helps and this is a piece of it."
Dore is proud of what he was able to accomplish, happy that he agreed to take a case that turned out to be so important.
"Josie is a testament to what good journalism is," Dore said. "To see someone physically assaulted and then see their name tarnished because of it is scary. To be able to work on that and try to help her and, more broadly, try to vindicate the interests of journalists is a real privilege. We're really happy with the result."
--Editing by Karin Roberts.
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