In a big announcement, the Lee County Attorney’s Office dismissed the remaining charges against the protestors arrested last fall while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Over 50 people, ranging from their mid-teens to their late 70s, were arrested on charges including trespassing, interference with official acts, and disorderly conduct. While some pled guilty and agreed to pay their respective fines, the majority of protestors pled not guilty and requested a jury trial.
In more than one instance, journalists covering the protests were arrested along with legal observers and protestors. Assistant Lee County Attorney Clinton Boddicker dropped the charges against one reporter, Aaron Murphy, along with those against 10 other protestors that only had one charge against them.
Those with more than one charge were offered a different deal. One woman, Jessica Garraway of Minneapolis, had her trespassing charge dropped if she agreed to plead guilty to a charge of interference with official acts and pay the maximum fine.
One of the reasons the County likely dropped the charges was in the interests of court efficiency. “‘If they all ended up having a jury trial, I would probably have had a jury trial every week between now and October, and we still probably would not have reached all the cases,” said Boddicker.
For those who did not show up to court, Lee County says it is planning to issue arrest warrants.
The Press is Supposed to have Reporter’s Privilege
Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the freedom of speech and press, and therefore the right of newspapers to cover and publish a story are protected rights that should be free from government interference. However, it is more of a legal gray area when reporters have to news-gather, and go to the protest, or step over a police line to get their photos and story.
Assuming the protest is in a public forum, reporters should not need credentials to cover it—they enjoy a right of access along with the public under the umbrella of the First Amendment. However, the government is allowed to institute time, place, and manner restrictions on free speech activities.
In those instances, it is recommended that a reporter get credentials or a ‘press pass’ from police departments to be able to cover a protest. Credentials will allow a reporter to cover the protest, but not partake in it. It also does not guarantee that he or she can cross police lines. This means that reporters also cannot “commit” crimes while trying to do their job, such as trespassing. In any event, it can be assumed that police and the current Administration will seek to limit press access and increase retaliation against reporters covering a contentious protest. If you are a reporter, it is recommended you have a criminal defense attorney on-hand if you know you are going to covering an event with high arrest rates. Continue reading