Prosecutor ignores blogger, defends decision to charge journalist with pipeline riot charge

Publish Date: 10/20/2016

BISMARCK — The special prosecutor who tried unsuccessfully to charge “Democracy Now!” reporter Amy Goodman with rioting for her role in a Dakota Access Pipeline protest said Thursday, Oct. 20, he wouldn’t respond to a Washington Post blogger’s column saying he’s unfit for office and should be sanctioned.

But McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson continued to challenge the notion that Goodman was acting as a journalist when she was present for a Sept. 3 clash between pipeline protesters and private security guards at a construction site in southern Morton County.

“There’s no relation to the facts and evidence we’re reviewing and the First Amendment,” he told Forum News Service in a phone interview.

Washington Post blogger Radley Balko criticized Erickson in a column Tuesday for recommending Goodman be charged with engaging in a riot, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Balko wrote that there appears to be no evidence Goodman participated in any rioting and that she “was basically charged for giving publicity to protesters.”

“The fact that Goodman may have been covering the protests from a point of view that’s friendly to the protesters doesn’t mean she’s culpable for the actions of those protesters who may have broken the law,” Balko wrote.

Balko wrote that Erickson “clearly doesn’t understand the First Amendment,” or worse, “chooses to ignore it.” While acknowledging Erickson is an elected official and that whether he keeps his job “will be up to the voters of McLean County,” Balko wrote that it’s “important that he be sanctioned,” calling the charges “a clear attempt to intimidate Goodman” and a warning to others considering covering future protests.

Erickson said he hadn’t read Balko’s column and had no comment on it.

“I am not reading any of the national media on this thing because it has nothing to do with reality or the evidence, and would likely just be an irritant,” Erickson wrote in an emailed statement. “The case is still open, we are still working to figure out why the judge signed the complaint on one person and not the others.”

Judge John Grinsteiner on Monday refused to sign off on rioting charges against Goodman and four others who initially had been charged with criminal trespass before those charges were dropped at Erickson’s request. Grinsteiner did sign a rioting complaint against one person who can be seen on video physically fighting with what appears to be a male security officer, according to the affidavit filed in support of the rioting charges.

The affidavit says one private security officer told agents Goodman was actively protesting and trying to rile the protestors and get them to go up closer to the security officers. Goodman, who lives in New York, has said she was doing her job as a reporter.

Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson, who represented Goodman, declined to say whether he thinks Erickson should be sanctioned but said Goodman’s case is “all about the First Amendment.”

“Just because he doesn’t like what she says doesn’t abrogate the First Amendment,” he said.

Dickson said he believes Balko’s column was reflective of national sentiment regarding North Dakota officials’ handling of the protests that began in August to disrupt construction of the four state, $3.8 billion oil pipeline as a federal judge considers the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting of the pipeline.

“The whole world literally is watching. At some point they have to exercise better judgment than they have been,” he said.

In a letter Wednesday to Erickson, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other state and federal officials, the Society of Environmental Journalists condemned what it called “efforts to criminalize news gathering and reporting” by prosecuting Goodman and other journalists covering the protests.

The letter signed by SEJ President Bobby Magill asks state and local prosecutors to drop all efforts to prosecute journalists for covering the pipeline controversy, and asks federal justice officials “to investigate this assault on journalists as a civil rights case.”

Documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg of Bozeman, Mont., also was arrested and faces three felony criminal conspiracy charges for filming protesters Oct. 11 as they attempted to shut down an existing oil pipeline near Walhalla., N.D., in a show of solidarity with Dakota Access opponents, the SEJ noted.

“Taken together, these attacks on First Amendment rights suggest a pattern of effort by North Dakota legal officials to suppress information about, and coverage of, protests against” the Dakota Access Pipeline, the letter states.

At least two other journalists face criminal trespass charges in North Dakota related to protest coverage.

Nicholas “Niko” Georgiades and another journalist with Unicorn Riot, which describes itself as a nonprofit educational media collective made up of volunteers, were arrested Sept. 13 while documenting a protest action in Morton County that included two protesters bound to construction equipment. Two other Unicorn Riot journalists were arrested at a Dakota Access protest in Iowa.

Georgiades was convicted in Minnesota for robbery and misdemeanor drug possession in 2002 and was arrested earlier this year for disorderly conduct while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis following the police shooting of Jamar Clark, a charge that was later dismissed. Research by law enforcement officials shows he’s also posted anti-police images on social media, though he said that was probably other people’s graffiti or propaganda that he reposted.

Georgiades said Unicorn Riot journalists can’t fulfill their mission of sharing the stories of those on the protest’s front lines without embedding themselves in the situation. He likened it to reporters embedded with the military to cover wars, noting they’re never referred to as “soldiers.”

“It’s definitely different in North Dakota,” he said. “The police definitely try to target us a bit more and try to discredit us.”