The Truth About My Arrest at USC

I have had a rather bizarre career in media, but what happened last week on the campus of USC here in Los Angeles may end up marking one of the strangest and most disturbing episodes yet. I went to USC intending to simply let as many people as possible know that the award for “journalism excellence” they were giving Katie Couric for her Sarah Palin interview was a complete farce. To prove my point, I wanted to give away copies of my film “Media Malpractice,” which has my own Sarah Palin interview as a special feature. Instead, I ended up getting handcuffed, “arrested,” roughed up, detained, threatened, and forced off the premises.

For those that may have missed the incredible video of the incident, here is how the episode was played on Fox News Channel:

While that report provided a good overview of what happened, there is a lot more to say about this situation, largely because there has been so much misinformation, so many irresponsible accusations, and so much blatant hypocrisy in the general reaction to the remarkable videotape.

Now, one would think that there wouldn’t be much confusion about a situation that was videotaped in its entirety by not one but two cameras who were acting largely independently of the primary actors (we have posted a nearly real-time version of the entire affair at, but unfortunately that is clearly the case. I would like to try to address some of these issues here.

First, one of the ways that those on the left have used to try to avoid having to hold their nose and support the free speech rights of a rabble-rousing “conservative,” is that USC is a “private” school and therefore they had the right to kick me out for no purpose. I even saw one prominent blog with the headline “Ziegler Arrested for Trespassing on Private Property,” which is just laughably false.

While USC is indeed a “private” school, this does not in any way legally make their property like that of a private residence. First, they take federal tax money, and second it has a very “open” campus and the area I was in has direct access from a public street without even a gate blocking the way. At any given moment there are many people walking on the sidewalks where I was arrested who are neither students, faculty nor invited guests of the University. I had every right to be there (outside the building where the award ceremony took place) and I did nothing to provoke or warrant being handcuffed, arrested or removed from the property. It is very clear the only reason that happened was because of my previously expressed political opinion on what was going on that day. In short, I was targeted for different treatment because of my beliefs.

The next tactic many have tried, in order to avoid facing their own politically induced hypocrisy on free speech, is to minimize the incident by saying that I was not “arrested” and that what happened was not a big deal.

While in the end I was not charged (I was told that I would indeed be booked at LAPD headquarters), that was only because higher authorities saw that the campus police “arrest” was clearly problematic if not completely bogus. After I was already “arrested,” they shifted gears and told me that I basically had two choices: leave the premises or be charged along with the two photographers who did not work for me and who in no way bargained for such a situation. Not wanting to put them in jeopardy and seeing that I could not possibly do anything further to achieve my original goal of educating those attending the awards, I decided, under threat of prosecution, to leave the grounds.

But make no mistake, I was arrested. I was handcuffed and detained against my will for an extended period of time with my microphone and blackberry taken from me. The photographers were also told to stop shooting under threat of arrest themselves. And, as the video clearly shows, my wrists were significantly bruised by the handcuffs that I had rightly complained were put on way too tight.

All of this happened obviously not because of my actions but because of my political view on the proceedings. In effect, I was being punished, repressed, and physically harmed as a form of prior restraint because they anticipated that I might do something to disrupt the proceedings based on my prior writings and commentary on the event (in which I never claimed I would do anything more than exactly what I tried to; give away copies of my film as an educational exercise). No matter how hard liberals try to rationalize it, this makes this a very obvious case of a blatant free speech violation.

Another way that commentators (including some on the right) have attempted to ignore the very serious First Amendment implications of this case, is to say that I set this up as some sort of publicity stunt to promote my film.

First of all, this could not be more irrelevant to the constitutional issues involved here. Second of all, I ask you to consider how the media would have reacted if the exact same events had happened to Michael Moore (which of course it wouldn’t because as a liberal he would never have anything to get upset about at a major academic institution and, even if he did, he would automatically get far more leeway from the authorities). I don’t think anyone could possibly argue that vast portions of the new media would ignore the episode despite the amazing video and the fact that it was up on Drudge for well over 24 hours.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, while obviously I welcome anything that raises awareness of my film and its truth, THIS WAS NOT A PUBLICITY STUNT and I had absolutely zero intention or expectation of anything like this happening. I honestly thought that I would go, ask a few embarrassing questions of the authorities, give away my film, and hopefully be able to speak to some of those who were going to the event so that I could share with them the real truth of the matter.

For those cynics out there (I am one, by the way) who still don’t believe me, I ask you to answer the following questions.

If this was a publicity stunt, why didn’t I force the authorities to book me so that I would get a mug shot and face formal charges which would exponentially increase the media coverage of the event?

If I anticipated anything like what occurred, why did I park my car in a metered parking space where if I was gone for more than an hour the chances of my car being towed would be extremely high?

If I wanted this to occur, why did I not have any scripted lines ready to go or any sort of publicity machine mobilized to take advantage of the news potential of the incident? Why did I have to call my lawyer after I got kicked off the property to see if what the law said about what one could do at a “private” university.

While I completely understand the skepticism, any objective look at the facts or at who I am as a person will force you to conclude that my motives were actually rather pure here.

The last bastion of scoundrels looking to distract from the real issues in this case is to focus on me as an individual and transparently distort some of the more colorful stories of my past as a way of destroying me personally. Not only is this a deceitful and clearly politically motivated scheme, but in many ways it is also the most dangerous tactic. For if we do not protect the free speech rights of the most unpopular or misunderstood among us, then we allow the free speech rights of everyone to be precariously weakened.

As you can see in the videotape, I am essentially laughing through most of the ordeal. I think this was out of shock more than anything else. Since this happened, my emotions have turned much more towards anger and sadness for what this means for the state of our freedoms in this rapidly changing country.

One of the things that has infuriated me most since the arrest has been USC’s e-mail response to the many people who have complained on my behalf over what they saw on the videotape.

Here is the e-mail that the Dean of the USC journalism school is sending out. In bold is where I have commented on the parts that are lies, distortions, or nonsensical statements.

Thank you for your communication about the recent incident that took place at the Cronkite Awards ceremony involving an individual named John Ziegler. I want you to know the background of the situation.

In the days before his appearance on our campus, Mr. Ziegler publicly stated an intention to “demonstrate” (not true. I used the word ”protest” and later sent out a private e-mail to my website’s mailing list telling my “followers” NOT to come or protest, my op-ed and press release on the matter said only that I would be giving out copies of my film) against the presentation of a journalism award to Katie Couric. USC was happy to accommodate Ziegler and provided him with a designated area where he could register his protest (not true. that was not offered until after I was handcuffed and was irrelevant because I was not “protesting” but rather asking questions), be seen by attendees at the event, as well as students, and pass out whatever materials he wished.

On the day of the award ceremony, Mr. Ziegler arrived on campus with two cameramen (not true. we arrived separately and they did not work for me), not as a demonstrator, but as a journalist (really?? that’s very interesting and certainly not how they treated me), and demanded (false, I asked and never even pursued entering, only asking for a rationale for why I was not allowed to) that he and his cameramen be allowed to enter the Davidson Center to cover the event. There was in fact, pool coverage set up because the room was not large enough to accommodate multiple camera crews. He was told he could have that feed, which he refused (not true, I would have been happy to have the feed and inquired as to how to get it). After being told repeatedly that the event was by invitation only, he contended he had a right to roam up and down the entryway with his cameramen (I didn’t have the right to be on an “open” campus that takes federal money??!), and he persisted in refusing to comply with the University’s request that he stay within a designated area (not true, that was after I was handcuffed). After repeated requests for compliance, Mr. Ziegler was given the choice of either being arrested or leaving campus. He chose to leave campus (false, after being handcuffed. I was told I was under arrest and would be booked, then the LAPD and some higher ups arrived and I was told to leave or I would be booked and the camera people would be as well).

The University both respects and facilitates freedom of speech and expression on campus (just not for conservative filmmakers asking about bogus awards given to liberal media members), but also reserves the right to set reasonable ground-rules to avoid disruption to its operations and protect the rights of others (which was in no way endangered in this situation). We at the Annenberg School have a powerful and evident commitment to protecting and promoting freedom of expression and the rights of the press (really??). I respect your feelings about how this incident was handled (gee, I wonder why!).


Ernest J. Wilson III

Dean and Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication

Wow. If that that e-mail is any indication of the type of journalism Dean Wilson is teaching future journalists at USC, things are far worse than even I thought! What is most amazing to me is that the whole thing is on videotape and they are still blatantly lying about how things transpired!

The bottom line here is that what happened to me was a grave injustice that should concern every freedom-loving American regardless of their political persuasion.

Just like I will not be intimidated in my crusade to correct the historical record about what really happened with regard to the media coverage of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in the 2008 Presidential election, I will not allow media hypocrisy, apathy and hatred of conservatives to stop me from making sure the free speech rights of all Americans are as fully protected as possible.

I plan to aggressively pursue my legal rights in this matter (already, USC has stupidly rejected an incredibly generous settlement offer that included no money, but rather only an apology and a full page in the school newspaper) and intend to formally announce those plans soon.

John Ziegler is the author of the “The Death of Free Speech” and the producer of “Media Malpractice…How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.”

by John Ziegler
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