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Vanderbilt-commissioned report on Nashville Scene reporter’s arrest continues to blame him

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Vanderbilt-commissioned report on Nashville Scene reporter’s arrest continues to blame him

Jun 05, 2024 | 6:45 pm ET
By Adam Friedman
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Vanderbilt-commissioned report on Nashville Scene reporter’s arrest continues to blame him
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Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Vanderbilt University continued to blame a Nashville Scene reporter, but shifted some responsibility to officers involved in his arrest as part of a report commissioned by the school and released Tuesday.

The report — conducted by the law firm Neal & Harwell and paid for by the university — claims officers did not arrest Nashville Scene journalist Eli Motycka because he was a reporter but because he attempted to enter a building closed to the public where students were protesting.

But the report said officers never asked or gave Motycka the opportunity to leave before his arrest. It goes on to blame a miscommunication between officers about the arrest, with VUPD officials claiming they told their officers not to make any arrests.

The Neal & Harwell report confirms that Vanderbilt's administration and the campus police were in complete disarray during these protests.

– Tricia Herzfeld, attorney for Eli Motycka

Motycka declined to comment for this story, releasing a statement through his lawyers, Tricia Herzfeld and Abby Rubenfeld.

“The Neal & Harwell report confirms that Vanderbilt’s administration and the campus police were in complete disarray during these protests,” Herzfeld said. “This resulted in the unlawful arrest of our client, a reporter who was just doing his job. We are hopeful that Vanderbilt will heed the recommendations in this report and develop a truly media-friendly policy while also making things right by Eli.”

Background

Across the country, students at universities like Columbia and UCLA, as well as smaller ones like Sewanee, have been protesting the war between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.

Motycka was one of the first reporters to cover the protests and sit-ins at Vanderbilt, publishing a story on March 20 about how students said the university was trying to keep the demonstrations quiet.

“[Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel] Diermeier’s strategy has been to augment and strengthen university rules around expression and, in turn, crack down on students who don’t comply with administration-approved definitions of speech,” Motycka wrote.

As part of his coverage, Motycka went to cover a student protest occurring at a university building that was closed to the public due to construction on March 26.

While attempting to cover the protest, he was arrested by university officers and removed from the campus. A few hours later, he was released after a local judge found no probable cause for his arrest, and the Nashville district attorney said he wouldn’t charge a reporter for doing their job.

The Neal & Harwell report details how, on the day of his arrest, Motycka informed the campus communications department that he was covering the protest. Officers were then briefed about his presence on campus and shown a picture of him.

“The stated plan was to determine if he was in the building and ask him to leave if he was there,” the report said.

Vanderbilt is a private institution, giving it wide latitude in deciding who can and can’t enter its 340-acre campus, which encompasses much of Nashville’s Midtown neighborhood.

University officials have claimed they’ve had a consistent media policy requiring news organizations to request permission to cover news on campus, and they consistently remind news organizations of this. But the report found these reminders have only gone to broadcast media rather than print or other outlets, like the Nashville Scene.

On the day of his arrest, reporters from The Tennessean and Vanderbilt Hustler were also in attendance.

The report concludes with several statements from the university claiming to support free speech and that the arrest was not meant to “impede” Motycka’s reporting, adding he may have been arrested if he wasn’t a reporter because he tried to open a closed building’s door multiple times.

The report refused to name Motycka or any of the officers involved in his arrest.

The Lookout reached out to Vanderbilt officials, asking if the university planned to change or update its media policy and apologize to Motycka for arresting him.

“We will act on the findings of the report as soon as possible, including the recommendations surrounding a formal written media access policy,” said Julia Jordan, a spokesperson for the university in an email. “We have long enjoyed a good working relationship with media, and this will not change. This was not a typical situation.”

In a column following his arrest, Motycka said he wanted three things from the university: the release of all footage, clarification of whether he was allowed on campus in the future and an apology.

“My arrest was not only personally embarrassing and physically uncomfortable, it was professionally inconvenient,” Motycka said. “It kept me from a story I had been waiting to report.”

The report

Editor’s note: The PDF copy of the report provided to the public is not searchable. We apologize for the inconvenience. 

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