Judge rejects riot charge against journalist covering pipeline protest

October 17, 2016 GMT

MANDAN, N.D. – A judge refused to sign a criminal complaint against journalist Amy Goodman, finding a lack of probable cause to charge her with rioting, her attorney said Monday, Oct. 17.

The host and executive producer of independent news program “Democracy Now!” planned to turn herself in on Monday, Oct. 17, on a criminal trespass charge. But prosecutor Ladd Erickson dropped the Class B misdemeanor charge and instead sought a riot charge.

However, South Central Judicial District Judge John Grinsteiner did not sign the criminal complaint, citing lack of probable cause, said Goodman’s attorney, Tom Dickson.

“This is vindication of freedom of the press, of the First Amendment, of the public’s right to know,” Goodman said after Grinsteinner rejected the riot charge.

Protests across the street from the Morton County Courthouse turned out more than 100 pipeline opponents. Dozens of law enforcement were on hand, advising activists to demonstrate across the alley from the building or risk arrest. Bismarck police responded to a march across Memorial Bridge, where protesters were marching and officers directed traffic.

The journalist for “Democracy Now!,” which also broadcasts on the internet and is in its 20th year, said she’ll return to New York “to continue reporting on North Dakota, on this Native American struggle, on climate change overall.”

Her attorney agreed with the judge’s decision in the matter.

“A journalist should not be charged with a crime for doing her job regardless of politics,” Dickson said.

Authorities issued an arrest warrant Sept. 8 for Goodman in connection with her coverage of a Sept. 3 clash between Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and security guards armed with dogs and pepper spray.

Goodman broadcasted her show live Monday morning from a lawn across the street from the Morton County Courthouse, sending it out to some 1,400 public radio and TV stations.

In an interview afterward, she said she will fight the riot charge.

“I wasn’t trespassing. I wasn’t rioting. I was doing my job as a reporter,” she said.

McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson, who is assisting Morton County, previously told the Bismarck Tribune that he saw no difference between Goodman and other anti-pipeline demonstrators charged with trespass, calling her “a protester, basically” and saying everything she reported on “was from the position of justifying the protest actions.” Erickson had not returned a message left at his office in Washburn Monday morning.

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 states, “Goodman can be seen on video identifying herself and interviewing protesters about their involvement in the protest.”

“I think they’re sending a message to all journalists … to ‘Be careful when you come into the state of North Dakota. We’ve suspended the First Amendment,’ ” Goodman said. “That’s a very serious problem, not only for journalists but for everyone, because freedom of the press is important to ensure the public’s right to know.”

Goodman said she was walking Sept. 3 with a group of Native Americans to a Dakota Access construction site west of Highway 1806, where they planned to plant flags of their tribes, when they unexpectedly encountered bulldozers plowing up part of the 1,172-mile oil pipeline route that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had just identified in a court filing a day earlier as containing burial grounds and other sacred sites.

Three Dakota Access security guards reported being attacked by protesters, while several protesters said they were pepper-sprayed or bitten by dogs in the widely distributed video.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II said Goodman’s reporting “took a lot of courage,” and opposition to the pipeline wouldn’t be where it is today without her reporting.

“What she had exposed was meaningful for the whole cause,” he said after appearing on Goodman’s show Monday morning.

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, and the committee is “really concerned” about the potential rioting charge.

“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.

Like criminal trespass, engaging in a riot is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Inciting a riot is a Class A misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

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.