Press Freedom in the U.S. Dodged a Bullet, but the Fight Isn’t Over

North Dakota is the latest battleground for First Amendment rights.

Members of the Kupa American Indian tribe protest construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on Sept. 13. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Oct 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Activists in North Dakota celebrated a victory for First Amendment rights on Monday when a Morton County judge refused to sign off on charges brought against Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman. Goodman faced an arrest warrant after she reported live in September from the scene of a violent confrontation between protesters challenging the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and private security hired by the pipeline company; the latter was caught on camera attacking the protesters with pepper spray and dogs.

“To charge a journalist with a crime for doing their job is un-American,” Tom Dickson, Goodman’s defense attorney told TakePart. “The charges were unwarranted and completely frivolous.”

Though Goodman is out of the woods for the moment, she’s not the only journalist in North Dakota facing legal backlash for trying to tell the story of the climate change activists and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe fighting pipeline construction there. Deia Schlosberg, a New York–based documentarian, is facing three felony charges after filming a protest action in Walhalla, North Dakota. The Oct. 11 action temporarily shut down part of the Keystone XL pipeline. Schlosberg was arrested last week and now faces up to 45 years in prison, according to The Huffington Post. Schlosberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TakePart on Monday, nor did Ryan Bialas, the state’s attorney who brought charges against Schlosberg.

Press freedom groups have long noted that the threat of imprisonment for acts of journalism might be common in places such as China, Turkey, and Iran, but reporters and documentarians in the U.S. have historically enjoyed freedom from such suppression and punishment. The recent arrests in North Dakota are alarming to those who advocate for the First Amendment rights of reporters.

Amy Goodman poses for a portrait at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10. (Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)

“It’s unacceptable that a journalist would be charged with trespassing or rioting just for doing her work,” Carlos Lauría, program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told TakePart. “North Dakota authorities have sent a chilling message to journalists and the press in general.”

Ladd Erickson, the prosecutor who brought charges against Goodman, described her as “a protester, basically,” to the Bismarck Tribune. “Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”

The dismissal of legitimate reporting on an issue of public interest comes as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly bars journalists from entry to his rallies and speaking events. Trump has also warned that he will change the legal landscape of press freedom in the U.S. if elected. At a rally in Texas in February, the candidate vowed to “open up our libel laws so when [newspapers] write purposely negative stories...we can sue them and make lots of money.”

His hostility toward the media has not gone unnoticed by organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“A candidate that has made vilifying the press a centerpiece of his campaign creates an atmosphere where attacks against journalists can happen,” said Lauría. “We’ve seen what happens in other countries where political leaders engage in a barrage of verbal assaults against the press—it’s a very worrisome situation.”

While the charge brought against Goodman has been dropped, the state’s attorney’s office is “reviewing other possible charges” it may bring against the reporter, spokesperson Donnell Preskey told TakePart. Erickson’s office first filed a criminal trespassing charge against the reporter and issued a warrant for her arrest, then dropped the charge and replaced it with the riot charge—a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. The charge is intended to punish “a public disturbance involving an assemblage of five or more persons which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons,” according to the North Dakota statutory code.

Goodman was in North Dakota to cover the ongoing protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The $3.8 billion pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe say the pipeline could threaten their water source and that its construction will destroy sacred burial sites.

Protests have been ongoing since April, but coverage of the campaign has largely been absent from mainstream media outlets. Goodman’s coverage for Democracy Now at an active construction site in September garnered broader attention.