In a time when the news is overflowing with what Donald Trump likes to do to women against their will, almost no one is talking about the situation in North Dakota where climate change is behind a protest by indigenous people. That’s where prosecutors are trampling on the Constitution by bringing criminal charges against reporters filming anti-pipeline protests. Why are no national or international news outlets carrying this story?
Amy Goodman Charged
On September 3, documentary film maker Amy Goodman, anchorwoman for Democracy Now! and her crew, filmed as private security guards working for the Dakota Access pipeline company descended on the Native Americans protesting the bulldozing of land on a Standing Rock Sioux tribal burial site in southern North Dakota.
According to Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi, the security guards sprayed the protesters with pepper spray and unleashed attack dogs on the crowd, which included young children. Goodman did interviews during the protests and covered the dog attacks as they unfolded. After her report aired, 14 million people around the world watched the video. It was just a few days later that the Obama administration got involved. It ordered a halt to pipeline construction on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and asked the company to “voluntarily pause all construction activity” in the area.
Five days after the attack, McLean County state’s attorney Ladd Erickson charged Goodman with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. Goodman will return voluntarily to North Dakota on October 17 to defend herself against the charge, aided by Tom Dickson of Bismarck. Erickson says he decided to bring criminal charges because in his opinion Amy Goodman is not a journalist.
“She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” said Erickson. He is particularly infuriated — no doubt after a substantial nudge from his superiors and from the pipeline company — because he say Goodman’s coverage did not mention that people trespassed during the incident or alleged assaults on guards. “Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?” he asked.
Perhaps Erickson is unfamiliar with Fox News, the alleged news channel that has made billions by deliberately slanting news to appeal to right wing extremists like him and has been doing it for decades, especially when the issue is climate change. In fact, the hatred and vitriol surrounding the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is largely as a result of the misinformation and innuendo spread by that organization.
The First Amendment
Erickson, who presumably went to law school since he is a county prosecutor, must have been out sick the week the First Amendment to the Constitution was taught at his school. Here it is in its entirety:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Where in that document does it say that prosecutors shall be the sole arbiters of who and who is not a journalist? Where is the language that permits a prosecutor to decide how a reporter should present a story? It is clear that Erickson, despite his legal training, has no concept of what the First Amendment says.
Bringing criminal chargers against Goodman is a direct assault on the First Amendment and the centuries of legal precedent that interprets it. Doing so is something we would expect in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or some other similar dictatorship. Where are the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the major TV networks on this? Are they rushing to provide legal assistance to Goodman so their own reporters do not risk similar criminal charges for reporting the news?
Deia Schlosberg Charged
Amy Goodman is not an isolated example, unfortunately. On October 11, Deia Schlosberg, the producer of a new film entitled How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change was arrested in Walhalla, North Dakota, after reporting on a climate change protest. According to The Nation, she was informed by the police that she was singled out because she was well-known and had 40,000 people watching live on her Facebook page.
Schlosberg has been charged with three felonies and faces a maximum 45 years in prison. The charges are conspiracy to steal property, conspiracy to steal services, and conspiracy to tamper with or damage a public service, according to the Huffington Post. That caused Edward Snowden to create this Tweet:
This reporter is being prosecuted for covering the North Dakota oil protests. For reference, I face a mere 30 years. https://t.co/GzMbwCVV40
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 14, 2016
In the world of criminal law, prosecutors often engage in what is known as “overcharging.” If you really want to make someone’s life miserable, don’t charge them with spitting on the sidewalk, charge them with conspiracy to spread a communicable disease using a known biohazard — saliva.
Overcharging allows prosecutors to look like heroes to the public — look how well we are protecting you! — and puts pressure on defendants to plead to lesser offenses, which they may or may not have committed, in exchange for dismissing the felony counts that should never have been brought in the first place.
Federal Government Threatens Action
If you are expecting any help from the federal government, forget about it. When asked this week about the protest activities that have been taking place in North Dakota for the better part of two months, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said nothing about climate change but uttered these ominous words, according to The Nation. “I can tell you that both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation are investigating these reports and trying to get to the bottom of what exactly happened and what potential steps could be taken to ensure the safety and security of our energy infrastructure.”
Say what? Safety of our energy infrastructure? What about the safety of people being assaulted with pepper spray and bitten by attack dogs? Suddenly people trying to protect their ancestral home are cause for Homeland Security to get involved? What’s next, should we lock them all up? Put them on the no fly list? Send them to Guantanamo to be waterboarded?
President Obama may be riding a wave of public approval at this moment, but if he is letting his press secretary make statements equating protesters with people bent on the destruction of America, he is enabling one of the most widespread assaults on freedom of the press in history. Obama professes to be a student of the Constitution. Perhaps it is time for a refresher course, Mr. President?
Why Should You Be Concerned?
Why is any of this important? Because the fossil fuel interests have trillions of dollars at stake if the world transitions to clean, renewable energy. These people will not surrender their future profits without a fight. They feel they have a God given right to rape and pillage the earth until every last hydrocarbon has been extracted and burned.
If millions upon millions of people suffer ill health or die prematurely because of their actions, that is fine with them, just as long as they get to keep their obscene profits flowing along with the oil. If millions are forced to flee rising oceans, that is too bad. The robber barons have more than enough money to relocate to Davos or decamp to Mars if they so choose. They spare not one thought for humanity or the earth.
“Who speaks for the earth?” is a question posed by Carl Sagan in 1980. The answer is the protesters in North Dakota are trying to speak for the earth and reporters are the ones spreading their message to the a wider audience. If we value the earth and the future of humanity, we should be applauding the protesters and the reporters, not threatening them with arrest and jail.
Our Government Is Broken
Sadly, our government often places the welfare of corporations ahead of the welfare of ordinary people, those who do not have the economic resources to sway elections or capture the attention of politicians with campaign “contributions.” Most other nations in the developed world are taking the threat of climate change far more seriously than is the Unites States.
Nearly 50% of the new cars sold in Norway last month were electric. Less than 1% in the US are. Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany are making plans to eliminate cars with internal combustion engines from new car sales in less than 15 years. In the US, 60% of all Americans are represented in Congress by someone who thinks climate change is hoax cooked up by the Chinese or Mexico or maybe Lithuania.
The best thing anyone can do to help safeguard the earth from climate change and defend it against rapacious corporations is to not vote for candidates who represent corporate interests rather than those of the voters. If you refuse to vote for climate deniers on November 8, you will be helping to promote sensible environmental policies and sending a signal that courageous journalist ought to be rewarded rather than incarcerated.
Your vote it your only means of shaping an America that reflects your world view. Please use it wisely.