Judge rejects riot charge against journalist covering pipeline protest
Publish Date: 10/18/2016
MANDAN, N.D. — A judge Monday refused to charge "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman with rioting for her coverage of a Sept. 3 clash between Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and private security guards, but the Morton County sheriff's office said Goodman could still face charges.
Goodman planned to turn herself in Monday morning on a criminal trespass charge filed five days after the incident. But her attorney was informed Friday that special prosecutor Ladd Erickson had dropped that charge and was pursuing a different charge of engaging in a riot, also a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
South Central Judicial District Judge John Grinsteiner refused to sign the criminal complaint for rioting, citing lack of probable cause, said Goodman's attorney, Tom Dickson of Bismarck.
Goodman called it a victory for all journalists.
"This is vindication of freedom of the press, of the First Amendment, of the public's right to know," she told reporters.
Erickson, the McLean County state's attorney assisting Morton County, said the judge signed a complaint against only one of the six people recommended for rioting charges in connection with the incident over Labor Day weekend.
"We don't know why on that one and not the others," he said via email.
Morton County spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said charges related to the incident are under further review by the state's attorney, and Goodman could still face charges.
Dickson discouraged that route, calling the criminal trespass charge "frivolous" and the rioting charge "beyond frivolous." He said a journalist shouldn't be charged with a crime for doing her job, "regardless of politics."
"Unless they're trying for a hat trick here, enough is enough, and they need to stop harassing a working journalist," Dickson said. "Morton County doesn't get to put journalists in jail because they don't like the news."
Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier released a statement saying he's assured "charges are being considered against these individuals."
"Let me make this perfectly clear, if you trespass on private property, you will be arrested," he said.
Reporter or protester?
Goodman said she was walking to the Dakota Access construction site with Native Americans who planned to plant tribal flags there Sept. 3 when they unexpectedly encountered bulldozers clearing part of the pipeline route that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had just identified in court a day earlier as containing burial grounds and other sacred sites. Dakota Access denies any sites were destroyed and state archeologists found no evidence of it, though the tribe says it wasn't consulted.
Several protesters said they were pepper-sprayed or bitten by dogs, while three Dakota Access security guards reported being attacked by protesters. Authorities are still investigating the incident, including whether the private guards were licensed and if their actions were warranted.
An affidavit filed in support of the rioting charge says Goodman was "yelling" at a female security officer that her dog had bitten a protester and was referring to blood on the dog's nose and mouth.
The K-9 handler told agents that Goodman "was actively protesting and acting like all the other protesters," the affidavit states. The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent who prepared the affidavit also wrote that it was clear the events portrayed in the video didn't happen in the order they were shown and that the video was edited and showed only part of the protest.
Goodman said the suggestion that she wasn't acting as a reporter "is completely untrue." She noted the affidavit filed with the criminal trespass charge stated, "Goodman can be seen on video identifying herself and interviewing protesters about their involvement in the protest."
"I wasn't trespassing. I wasn't rioting. I was doing my job as a reporter," she said.
Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas for the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, said Goodman was clearly working as a journalist when she filmed the Sept. 3 incident.
"I think authorities in North Dakota should drop the charges and ensure that all reporters are free to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or intimidation," Lauría said by phone Monday.
'A lot of courage'
Goodman said she planned to return to New York on Monday "to continue reporting on North Dakota, on this Native American struggle, on climate change overall." Now in its 20th year, "Democracy Now!" is carried by about 1,400 public radio and TV stations and also airs online.
The award-winning journalist did Monday's show from a lawn next to a church across the street from the courthouse. One of her guests, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II, said afterward that Goodman's reporting "took a lot of courage."
"What she had exposed was meaningful for the whole cause," he said.
Goodman and two other "Democracy Now!" journalists were arrested while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention. They sued, alleging that authorities violated their First Amendment rights by interfering with their right to gather news, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. In a settlement, the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the U.S. Secret Service agreed to pay a combined $100,000, the newspaper reported.
One arrested in protest
As news spread that the judge rejected the complaint, a crowd of about 50 people demonstrating in support of Goodman and in opposition to the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois swelled to about 200 outside the courthouse.
More than 60 law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear and holding batons responded, lining up in front of the courthouse and warning protesters to stay off the street as they sang and danced.
One man was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and disobeying a public safety order under riot conditions, both misdemeanors. Authorities have made at least 140 arrests since protests began in mid-August.
Police had earlier responded at about noon to roughly 200 protesters who blocked traffic as they marched across Memorial Bridge between Mandan and Bismarck, Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson said. No arrests were made.
The crowd began to disperse from the courthouse at about 2:30 p.m.