The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion North Dakota prosecutor Ladd Erickson is unfit for office

A North Dakota judge has dismissed a “riot” charge against “Democracy Now!” journalist Amy Goodman. At least one other journalist has been arrested and faces felony charges for covering climate change and pipeline protests in the state. There appears to be no evidence that Goodman actually participated in any rioting. She was basically charged for giving publicity to protesters, some of whom may have “rioted” as defined by state law. That seems evident in statements prosecutor Ladd Erickson has given to the Bismarck Tribune. Like this one:

“I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of the state.”

Or this one:

“She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” said Erickson, adding that her coverage of the Sept. 3 protest did not mention that people trespassed during the incident or the alleged assaults on guards.
“Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?” he asked.

Well, yes. 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. There’s no “advocacy exception” to the First Amendment’s free-press protections. In fact, at the time the First Amendment was written and passed, there was no ideal of an “objective” press. All press was advocacy press.

These arrests and charges are an affront to both the free press and the right to protest. They’re also ample evidence that Erickson isn’t fit to be a prosecutor. He clearly doesn’t understand the First Amendment. Or — even worse — he understands it just fine. He just chooses to ignore it.

Whether Erickson keeps his job will be up to the voters of McLean County, N.D. But it’s important that he be sanctioned. Here’s why: It seems doubtful that Erickson ever thought these charges would stick. (If he did, all the worse.) This was a clear attempt to intimidate Goodman. It was also a warning to any other reporter, writer or journalist who may consider covering any future protests. Goodman had the benefit of a national platform, good attorneys, and a strong and vocal network of supporters. The next reporter may be a freelance journalist or blogger, or work for some small advocacy publication. The Constitution protects them, too.

If Erickson can abuse his power in this way without suffering any professional penalty, there’s no disincentive to dissuade him or some other prosecutor from doing it again. It ought to be made clear that this isn’t a matter upon which “reasonable people can disagree.” It simply isn’t acceptable. Erickson announced to the world that a prosecutor working for the state of North Dakota is willing to dispense with the Constitution and deploy the threat of imprisonment to silence people with whom he disagrees. It isn’t enough that a judge has dismissed the charges. For as long as Erickson gets away with bringing charges in the first place, the threat remains.