As of yesterday, a judge has dismissed the “rioting” charge against journalist Amy Goodman, stating prosecutors lacked probable cause necessary to sustain such a charge. Goodman was initially charged with criminal trespass after a warrant for her arrest was issued when she reported on protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The initial warrant and the subsequent charge were widely criticized as attempts to criminalize journalism, especially after the prosecutor responded that the award winning independent journalist was a protester, not a journalist, because her broadcast portrayed the protest sympathetically.
While Goodman’s victory today is a victory for the First Amendment, there still remains another journalist charged with a criminal offense for documenting the protests. Documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested, had her film confiscated, and held for 48 hours after documenting a group of activists shutting down a pipeline that was part of DAPL. She is charged with “conspiracy to theft of property, conspiracy to theft of services and conspiracy to tampering with or damaging a public service.” These three felony charges carry up to 45 years in prison. Edward Snowden weighed in by pointing that he only faces 30 years in prison if convicted under the Espionage Act for blowing the whistle on the NSA’s illegal bulk surveillance.
Civil Liberties Under Siege
Last week, the Dissent NewsWire reported on the rampant violations of the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and speech taking place in North Dakota. With Standing Rock at their epicenter, protests against DAPL have taken place across the state. State and county officials, have responded not by respecting the free association rights of the protesters, but with heavy handed responses, such as calling an entirely unnecessary state of emergency, deploying militarized police, and roadblocks. Both state and county officials have also engaged in inflammatory demonizations of protesters, accusing them of violence or attributing pipeline opposition to out of state agitators.
It is in addition to this crackdown on protest, that county level officials across North Dakota also are targeting journalists who are covering the protests.
Journalism and Democracy
Many have criticized the media for not giving enough coverage to the DAPL protests, so it is particularly ominous that journalists who have covered the protests on the ground have been signaled out for outrageous criminal prosecutions clearly aimed at deterring them from getting the word out.
The example of Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman is illustrative. After receiving almost no attention from other media outlets, on September 3, 2016 Goodman traveled to Standing Rock to report on the ongoing protests. During her time there, she captured on tape private security guards attacking protesters, including a six-year old child, with mace and dogs. These images, given their parallels both to the type of shocking brutality deployed against civil rights protesters and the long history of government abuse of Native Americans, were highly captivating to many people. As a result, the images and accompanying story soon went viral, being viewed over 14 million times. Major media outlets, like NBC and BBC, featured footage from the video.
Goodman’s reporting not only brought attention to the brutality that peaceful protesters at Standing Rock were facing, but brought attention to the protests themselves and the surrounding issues about indigenous rights and the environmental impact of DAPL. It is for this reason that courageous journalists like Goodman provide a tremendous service to democracy. And it is for this reason that somebody who wanted to squash dissent over the pipeline protests would target her.
According to the prosecutor, Goodman did not have a First Amendment claim to the protections freedom of the press affords, because she is not a journalist. She is a protester. That Goodman runs a daily news show that is broadcast on TV and radio all over the country, that she has won awards for her journalism, and was in North Dakota with a film crew documenting the protests did not matter to the prosecutor. He claimed she was fair game for prosecution, because “[e]verything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”
Of course, whether someone is a journalist afforded the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of the press does not turn on whether the government likes the viewpoint of what is reported. North Dakota officials have engaged in a relentless campaign of demonisation of the protesters, by simply depicting what is actually happening on the ground–in the case of Goodman peaceful protesters being attacked with dogs–this narrative is severely undermined.
Not allowing the government to control the narrative when it comes it the suppression of the dissent is what a free press is supposed to do. The attempted prosecution of Amy Goodman and possible prosecution of Deia Schlosberg is about reestablishing government control of this narrative.