Judge Throws Out Rioting Charge Against Journalist Covering Dakota Access Protest

Amy Goodman, who filmed a violent clash between protesters and pipeline security, faced a 30-day jail sentence, but a judge upheld her First Amendment rights.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! faced criminal charges for her reporting in North Dakota
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! faced criminal charges for covering the Dakota Access protest in September. Credit: Getty Images

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A North Dakota judge threw out a charge against journalist Amy Goodman for “participating in a riot” while covering a Sept. 3 protest against the Dakota Access pipeline for the independent news show Democracy Now! District judge John Grinsteiner rejected the charge filed by a state prosecutor Monday afternoon in Mandan, N.D.

“This is a vindication of freedom of the press, of the First Amendment, [and] of the public’s right to know,” Goodman said outside the courthouse after the judge’s decision.

Goodman’s coverage included interviewing protesters and pipeline security guards on camera during the clash. Her video showed protesters climbing over a wire fence onto an active construction site. Security guards then used dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to disperse the crowd. The video, shot from inside the construction site, shows one dog with blood on its nose and teeth and an unleashed dog lunging at a group of protesters.

Goodman was initially charged with trespassing and a warrant was issued for her arrest on Sept. 8. Both that charge and warrant, however, were dropped prior to Monday’s hearing. According to Democracy Now! the reversal came after Goodman’s attorney received an email from prosecutor Ladd Erickson, which said there were “legal issues with proving the notice of trespassing requirements in the statute.”

Last Friday, Erickson filed a new charge of engaging in a riot, which carried a potential 30-day jail sentence and a $2,500 fine. The charge was dismissed by Judge Grinsteiner on Monday.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a journalist being charged with, much less convicted of, participation in a riot for being on the scene of a disruptive situation if all they were doing was taking notes and doing interviews,” said Terry Francke, founder and legal counsel of Californians Aware, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of First Amendment rights.

In a separate email to Goodman’s attorney, Erickson said that Goodman was “not acting as a journalist,” according to the news program. Erickson said he does not recall the email, but told the Bismarck Tribune that Goodman’s one-sided coverage meant that she was acting as a protester.

Goodman is an award-winning journalist and book author whose work has focused on progressive grasroots movements and giving voice to marginalized individuals and groups. Democracy Now!, which she co-founded in 1996, is broadcast on more than 1,400 public radio and television stations across the world. In 2014, she won the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award.

Donnell Hushka, a spokesperson for the North Dakota Association of Counties, suggested in a statement that other individuals involved in the protest still could be prosecuted. “Other charges in regards to the September 3 protest event are under further review by the Morton County State’s Attorney’s office,” he said.

“Let me make this perfectly clear, if you trespass on private property, you will be arrested,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said in a separate statement.

Documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested on Oct. 11 and charged with three felonies carrying a maximum sentence of up to 45 years in prison while filming activists who shut down tar sands pipelines in North Dakota in a show of support for Dakota Access opponents. 

The Native American-led protests in North Dakota began as an effort to protect the drinking water and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe whose reservation is just downstream of where the proposed pipeline would cross the Missouri River. On Sept. 9, the Obama administration announced it would not grant a permit for a key portion of the project near Standing Rock Sioux land pending further review and tribal consultation.

Opposition to the pipeline has grown to include the concerns of Native Americans elsewhere along its route, private landowners in Iowa, and environmentalists concerned about the project’s climate impact.

“We will continue to cover what happens at the resistance camps, what happens at the reservation, what happens at the excavation sites, what happens behind the bars in the Mandan jail,” Goodman said.