Documentarian escorted off campus during ceremony

On April 15, 2009, a documentary filmmaker was handcuffed and forcibly removed from the University of Southern California campus during a journalism awards ceremony. The filmmaker, John Ziegler, was led away by two USC Department of Public Safety officers after refusing university requests to remain within a designated area behind a barricade set up for protestors. Ziegler arrived on campus with two camera operators who filmed some of his dialogue and interactions with university authorities.

Ziegler had previously asked for permission to cover the 5th annual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism, one of whose honorees this year is the “CBS Evening News” anchor and Managing Editor Katie Couric. “She won the award,” according to the USC Annenberg School of Communication Web site, “for her interviews with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.”

The documentarian Ziegler’s latest film is “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.” The film takes issue with media coverage of the election, including Couric’s widely viewed interview with Palin.

Ziegler was denied entry because the awards ceremony was an invitation-only event, USC spokesman James Grant told CPJ. On April 8, Ziegler wrote on The Fox Forum Web site: “While I was not able to get a ticket, I plan to be at the event handing out copies of ‘Media Malpractice’ to any of the attendees who want to know the facts.”

Ziegler said two days before the awards ceremony during an interview on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends,” that “we’re going to be protesting the event.” The university set up a designed area behind metal barricades in anticipation of a Ziegler-led protest. “We even provided a table for him to distribute his DVDs,” USC spokesman Grant told CPJ.

The video shot by Ziegler’s camera operators shows him on outside the building where the awards ceremony was taking place. Their video pans of the area showed the barricaded section but no protestors in the area at all.

“I went to USC to witness and ask questions about Katie Couric getting the Walter Cronkite journalism award for her interview with Sarah Palin,” Ziegler later wrote on his Web site. “I intended to also give away copies of my film but I was literally prevented from doing so.”

Ziegler’s short, edited video shows him walking with a microphone in hand unimpeded on a university sidewalk, while intermittently engaging in dialogue with university officials, including USC spokesman Grant, who repeatedly asked him to remain behind the designated protest area. USC Department of Public Safety Chief Carey Drayton told CPJ that Ziegler was harassing university employees and volunteers who were staffing sign-in tables and facilitating the awards ceremony along with two other university events.

Zielger wrote on his Web site, “I did not go there hoping for or expecting any sort of confrontation, especially with law enforcement.”

The video shows USC campus police later leading a handcuffed Ziegler to the edge of the campus. An officer ordered his camera operators to turn off the equipment; the operator first pointed the camera at the ground and then turned off the video–but not the audio, which continued to record the conversation. USC police then gave Ziegler and his crew the option of leaving campus or being arrested. They chose to leave and were released.