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Editorial: Dismiss charges against journalists covering the Standing Rock protests

Sara Lafleur-Vetter was filming the arrest of protesters demonstrating against the Dakota Access Pipeline when police tackled her to the ground, with one officer placing his knee on her back. On a video of the arrest, demonstrators can be heard telling police that LaFleur-Vetter is a journalist. She was taken by bus to the Morton County Detention Center, booked, then transferred to the Cass County Jail. LaFleur-Vetter, whose video later was posted on The Guardian newspaper's website, was strip-searched and spent two nights in jail before she was released.

For a year, she faced the possibility of spending up to a year in jail for misdemeanor charges of physical obstruction of a government function, disobedience of safety orders during a riot, and disorderly conduct. At considerable expense and inconvenience, she had to fly back from Oakland, Calif., where she lives, to Mandan four times for court hearings. A year after her arrest, she was acquitted at trial—the evidence against her was so weak that the judge dismissed the charges after the Morton County state's attorney's office presented its case.

What happened to Lafleur-Vetter is an outrage and an affront to the First Amendment. It's also something that happened multiple times. LaFleur-Vetter is one of about 10 journalists who were arrested in late 2016 and early 2017 while covering the prolonged protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Another journalist who was arrested while doing her job is Jenni Monet, who said she was arrested after leaving a camp that police were clearing—following police orders—but was nonetheless arrested while filming the clearance. Monet carried press credentials and, like Lafleur-Vetter, identified herself as a journalist. Both women were using professional cameras and audio gear. Monet, who also was strip-searched and jailed, still awaits trial.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a joint effort of the Committee to Protect Reporters and the Press Freedom Foundation, easily did what Allen Koppy, the Morton County state's attorney, failed to do: verify that each of the arrested journalists was, in fact, a reporter or photographer covering a story. According to the director of the Press Freedom Tracker, most journalists in the United States who get arrested are covering a demonstration. Unlike the Standing Rock cases, however, prosecutors almost always dismiss the charges. It's a simple matter in this day and age to go online to look for stories and images to establish whether someone is a journalist or a demonstrator claiming to be one.

Journalism organizations including the Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association and Freedom of the Press Foundation, have pointed out that charging someone with a crime requires evidence of criminal intent. That's utterly lacking in the case of journalists covering a story. It's in the public interest to have journalists, as surrogates of the public, at close hand to observe events like the Standing Rock protests and the police response. The First Amendment is a bedrock right. Koppy, the Morton County state's attorney, should do what judges who have heard the cases that have gone to trial have done: dismiss the charges. Failure to do so is only prolonging an injustice.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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