Liberal broadcast journalist Amy Goodman escaped criminal charges on Monday—and the citizens of North Dakota dodged temporary embarrassment over the ludicrous behavior of their public officials—when a state judge refused to sign a criminal complaint against the Democracy Now anchor arising from her coverage of an anti-pipeline protest by residents of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
“I feel vindicated. Most importantly, journalism is vindicated, that we have a right to report,” Goodman, 59, who launched her daily public television program 20 years ago, told a gaggle of fellow reporters gathered outside the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan, North Dakota.
Moments before, Judge John Grinsteiner had dismissed a misdemeanor charge of “riot” that States Attorney Ladd Erickson had attempted to pin on her, and a scheduled arraignment hearing was cancelled; Erickson, who normally plies his trade in nearby McLean County but volunteered his services for this case, had even taken the highly unusual step of issuing an arrest warrant for the award-winning journalist.
The defeated prosecutor—who was elected unopposed in the energy-producing, Donald Trump-supporting state—declined an interview request from The Daily Beast, although he argued in an email that a lengthy affidavit by North Dakota special agent Lindsay Wold—describing Goodman’s actions in the Democracy Now video as well as security footage—was a sufficient basis for the rioting charge.
When challenged that the video simply showed her performing journalistic functions—describing the actions of protesters and security personnel, including a dog that had blood on its nose and mouth after apparently biting into human flesh—Erickson said: “I didn’t think her video had much evidence value frankly… some of the other videos that haven’t been edited or published gave a better understanding of the incident when we were reviewing the evidence…”
It was apparent, however, that Erickson and his employees have been taking heat in recent weeks over his prosecution of Goodman. An unnamed receptionist who answered the phone in Erickson’s office Monday morning told this reporter: “I want to thank you for not cussing at me and not shaming me for working here.”
Goodman, for her part, declared: “Today the judge sided with freedom—with freedom of the press and the First Amendment—and that’s a very, very sacred and important principle”—this, after delivering a rousing speech to largely Native American pipeline protesters, who voiced their approval with cheers and war whoops.
Erickson initially charged Goodman with criminal trespassing—a misdemeanor carrying a fine and 30 days in jail—after she documented a Sept. 3 protest of Native Americans trying to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across what they identified as sacred burial grounds. More than hundred protesters—men, women and children—confronted bulldozers, security personnel in hardhats and growling dogs in order to voice their concerns over the pipeline’s potential contamination of their ground water.
On Friday, as Goodman flew from to New York to North Dakota to face the music and turn herself in to law enforcement authorities, Erickson abruptly withdrew the trespassing complaint for what he termed technical reasons, and replaced it with the rioting charge.
In the weeks leading up to Monday’s dismissal, the prosecutor gave a variety of reasons for his publicity-generating prosecution of Goodman.
He told the Grand Forks Herald that he didn’t even consider Goodman a journalist, notwithstanding that over a long and distinguished career, she has received a prestigious George Polk award among many other prizes.
“She’s a protester, basically,” Erickson opined. “Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”
To the Bismarck Tribune, he insisted: “I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of her state.”
Goodman’s report—which showed peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed by private security personnel and set upon by attack dogs that sunk their fangs into arms, legs, and faces, while Goodman interviewed both protesters and pipeline officials—generated international attention, 14 million views on Democracy Now’s Facebook page, while Goodman’s disturbing footage ended up on the major U.S. broadcast and cable networks.
Shortly afterward, three federal agencies of the Obama administration—the Army Corps of Engineers, the Justice Department, and the Interior Department—intervened to slow down the progress of the pipeline construction, including a plan to route it under the Missouri River, for which the Texas-based pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, has yet to receive the required permit.
“This was an attempt to intimidate her and any of the reporters that are covering the protests, and it’s ridiculous,” said Carlos Lauri’a of the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of a number of organizations and reporters who have vocally supported Goodman in recent weeks. “It’s a clear attack on press freedom. The authorities should stop embarrassing themselves.”
Public interest lawyer Reed Brody, a friend of Goodman’s who accompanied her to North Dakota to aid her defense, said it was prudent for her to answer the arrest warrant—“she travels a lot, and once you’re in the system” another law enforcement agency could cause trouble. “She wanted to come back and face these charges…She’s happily doing this, and obviously we feel that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pressing these charges and calling attention to the pipeline issue.”
Brody said that even if Goodman had lost today’s legal round or ended up doing jail time, “This is a win-win situation for Amy with no downside.”
He added: “They fucked with the wrong person.”
Still, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier—responding to Judge Grinsteiner’s dismissal of charges against Goodman and five protesters—left open the possibility that she could still be in legal jeopardy, though for what he didn’t specify.
“The Morton County Sheriff’s Department continues to investigate the events of September 3rd,” said Kirchmeier’s press release. “
Additional charges are under further review by the Morton County State’s Attorney’s Office.”
The pipeline remains a subject of litigation between the Standing Rock Sioux and Energy Transfer Partners; coincidentally or not, the financial disclosure form that candidate Trump filed with the Federal Election Commission reveals that he has between $500,000 and $1 million invested in the Texas pipeline builder, along with an additional $50,000 to $100,000 invested in Phillips 66, the 25-percent owner of the completed Dakota Access Pipeline—this, according to a report by the Greenpeace environmental organization.
Trump, of course, regularly demonizes the Fourth Estate, calling out journalists who cover his troubled campaign—frequently by name, as they work in the press area at the back of his rallies, where diehard Trump supporters curse at and threaten them—as “dishonest” and “disgusting.”