US judge rejects riot charge against journalist Amy Goodman in Dakota access pipline protest
North Dakota,Oct18:A North Dakota judge rejected prosecutors’ “riot” charges against Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman for her reporting on the oil pipeline protests, a decision that advocates hailed as a major victory for freedom of the press.
After the award-winning broadcast journalist filmed security guards working for the Dakota access pipeline using dogs and pepper spray on protesters, authoritiesissued a warrant for Goodman’s arrest and alleged that she participated in a “riot”, a serious offense that could result in months in jail.
On Monday, judge John Grinsteiner ruled that the state lacked probable cause for the riot charge, blocking prosecutors from moving forward with the controversial prosecution.
The case stems from a 3 September report when Goodman traveled to the Native American-led protest against a controversial $3.8bn oil pipeline that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe says is threatening its water supply and cultural heritage.
Goodman’s dispatch on the use of dogs went viral and has since garnered 14m views on Facebook and also prompted coverage from many news outlets, including CBS, NBC, NPR and CNN.
The North Dakota state attorney’s office had originally charged the journalist with “criminal trespass”. But last week, prosecutors emailed Goodman’s attorney, admitting that there were “legal issues with proving the notice of trespassing requirements in the statute”, according to Democracy Now! Instead, the state said it would be seeking riot charges.
“If the prosecutor thought he was going to intimidate Amy, he severely misjudged the situation,” Reed Brody, one of Goodman’s lawyers, told the Guardian after the judge’s decision Monday.
In one email, state’s attorney Ladd Erickson alleged that Goodman “was not acting as a journalist”, according to Democracy Now! However, the original trespassing complaint noted that she is a reporter, with prosecutors writing that Goodman “can be seen on video identifying herself and interviewing protesters”.
Erickson claimed to the local Bismarck Tribune newspaper that Goodman is a “a protester, basically”, adding: “Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”
Goodman – who has written for the Guardian in the past – is a critically acclaimed progressive host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a program that airs on more than 1,400 stations across the globe. She has also co-authored six New York Times bestsellers.
During the September dispatch, Democracy Now! quoted one protester describing the dogs violently attacking activists: “These people are just threatening all of us with these dogs. And she, that woman over there, she was charging, and it bit somebody right in the face.”
“The dog has blood in its nose and its mouth,” Goodman said at the time. “Why are you letting their, her dog go after the protesters? It’s covered in blood.”
An unprecedented gathering of Native American protesters has emerged over the past month to protest against the pipeline, which is scheduled to transport fracked crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a refinery near Chicago.
Last week, actor Shailene Woodley, star of The Fault In Our Stars and the Divergent series, was arrested alongside 26 other activists at the pipeline protests.
Depending on the specific charge, Goodman could have faced several months or up to a year if convicted, according to Brody.
The riot claim was particularly unusual and disturbing, the lawyer added.
Brody said he hoped the state would stop targeting Goodman and other journalists. “He tried one charge. He tried another. At a certain point, I would think it would become too embarrassing for him to pursue these charges.”
The case backfired on prosecutors by prompting many journalists to write about law enforcement’s questionable responses to protesters, he added.
“If he thought these charges were going to deflect media attention from the pipeline, then he really blew it.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation noted that Goodman was arrested in 2008 for covering Minnesota protests at the Republican national convention. She later won $100,000 from the state in a first amendment lawsuit.
The foundation slammed the prosecution in a statement before the court appearance: “Not only are they flagrantly violating the constitution, they are giving every two-bit dictator and corrupt police establishment around the world every excuse to point to this episode and arrest journalists abroad, while making a mockery of our own press freedom protections at home.”
Erickson, the state’s attorney, declined to say whether his office would end its prosecution of Goodman.
“The case against her and the other people we submitted for charges is still under review,” he said in an email. “Don’t know if that will mean charges or not [at] this point.”
Kyle Kirchmeier, the local county sheriff, said he is continuing to investigate Goodman and others arrested at the protests and that prosecutors are still exploring options to move the case forward.
“I am assured charges are being considered against these individuals,” he said in a statement, adding: “Let me make this perfectly clear, if you trespass on private property, you will be arrested.”