Civil liberties groups are applauding a North Dakota judge's decision to drop a felony riot charge against a prominent journalist.
Award-winning reporter Amy Goodman faced potential prison time for reporting on authorities' harsh crackdown on peaceful protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, a massive $3.8 billion project that will transfer oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
Goodman, founder and host of the popular independent news outlet Democracy Now, appeared in court in Mandan, North Dakota, on Monday, where the judge ruled in her favor.
"This is a complete vindication of my right as a journalist to cover the attack on the protesters, and of the public’s right to know what is happening with the Dakota Access pipeline," Goodman said in a statement announcing the decision.
She added, "We will continue to report on this epic struggle of Native Americans and their non-Native allies taking on the fossil fuel industry and an increasingly militarized police in this time when climate change threatens the planet."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota welcomed the news.
"We're delighted that the charges of riot have been dropped," Jennifer Cook, policy director for the group, told Salon in a phone interview.
Cook said the dropping of the charge is a "victory for the freedom of the press."
"We hope that the state will discontinue what seems to be a campaign against journalists who are here and willing to shed light on the activities of the state against protesters," she added.
"Amy Goodman's role as a reporter observing those actions on that day plays an important role in our democracy," Cook emphasized.
For months, indigenous groups have led protests against the massive $3.8 billion oil pipeline, which will span at least 1,168 miles. Environmental and social justice activists from around the country have joined the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in protests against the project.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe warns the pipeline will pollute their land and water. The tribe filed a lawsuit in July arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers did not follow proper procedures when authorizing the Dallas-based fossil fuel company Energy Transfer Partners to build the pipeline.
In early September, a federal judge ruled in favor of the pipeline. Moments after his decision, however, the Department of Justice, Army and the Department of the Interior surprisingly called for a temporary delay in construction on lands within 20 miles of Lake Oahe, which traverses the border of North and South Dakota.
Democracy Now reported from North Dakota on Sept. 3. It published video showing private security guards who were hired by the Dakota Access pipeline company attacking and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.
The video also showed security forces using attack dogs, including one that had blood dripping from its mouth and nose.
Two days after Democracy Now published its footage, which went viral and was used by numerous major media outlets, Morton County issued an arrest warrant for Goodman.
Goodman was originally charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. Yet when she returned to North Dakota on Oct. 14, to challenge the charge, Goodman was informed that state's attorney Ladd Erickson had dropped the misdemeanor criminal trespass charge due to an admitted lack of evidence. Instead, a new charge had been filed against her: for riot, which is a felony.
"I came back to North Dakota to fight a trespass charge. They saw that they could never make that charge stick, so now they want to charge me with rioting," Goodman said in a statement.
She stressed, "I wasn’t trespassing, I wasn’t engaging in a riot, I was doing my job as a journalist by covering a violent attack on Native American protesters."
Jennifer Cook told Salon the previous felony charge against Goodman was "concerning for freedom of the press and the right of journalists to observe and record and document potential civil rights abuses."
"It seems that there is a specific intent by the state of North Dakota and the Morton County sheriff's office to identify journalists or others that are bringing light to the police response and the state response to the protests, which we, the ACLU, would consider heavy-handed and highly militarized," she explained.
Other rights groups condemned the riot charge. Amnesty International also said the charge against Goodman was "an infringement on freedom of the press."
Journalists expressed outrage as well. Lizzy Ratner, a senior editor at the Nation, warned that the "charges against Goodman are a clear attack on journalism and freedom of the press" and "should scare us all."
In a symbolic act of resistance, Democracy Now broadcast its daily program on Monday morning across the street from the Morton County courthouse, where Goodman appeared later in the day.
In an Oct. 12 email, North Dakota State's Attorney Ladd Erickson claimed Goodman "was not acting as a journalist" — even though, as Democracy Now pointed out, the state's criminal complaint said "Amy Goodman can be seen on the video ... interviewing protesters."
Erickson claimed that Goodman was "a protester, basically," adding, "Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions."
The ACLU of North Dakota strongly rejected this claim. "Amy Goodman was clearly performing a role as a journalist," Jennifer Cook emphasized to Salon.
"And regardless of whether it's Amy Goodman or any other type of independent journalist or individuals that are documenting the activities of police and state interactions with protesters or private security interactions with protesters — they have a right to document those, a First Amendment right to document those actions and to report on them," she added.
Cook said it "is absolutely concerning that private security would use such excessive force against protesters that are nonviolent." She noted that accusations of alleged trespassing "in no way is a justification for using attack dogs and pepper spray against individuals that are expressing their dismay with the activities that are ongoing."
Goodman is not the only person who faced charges related to the demonstrations. Dozens of other people have been arrested. On Saturday alone, 14 more were arrested. Even Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, the presidential and vice presidential nominees of the Green Party, face misdemeanor charges for participating in protests against the pipeline.
Three activists appeared in court on Monday on felony charges for locking themselves to construction equipment.
Many of the activists call themselves protectors, not protesters, Democracy Now noted. They emphasize that they are protecting the land from destruction and pollution.