Contacts: Brian Hansen, 202/232-4901 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ president, 317/633-9385, 317/634-0349 or email@example.com.
INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists convinced federal officials to drop a criminal charge against journalist Brian Hansen, who was arrested while covering a public protest on federal lands last year in Colorado.
Brian Hanson moments before his arrest in Vail on July 6, 1999.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James M. Robb signed the motion to dismiss the case Aug. 30 in Grand Junction, Colo.
“Had SPJ not come to my defense, I think the government would have been far less likely to drop the case,” said Hansen, who is starting a new job as the assistant bureau chief in Washington, D.C., for the Environmental News Service. “Obviously, I’m very happy and relieved that the federal government has seen the light.”
Hansen, who was covering the protest for the Boulder-based Colorado Daily newspaper, was charged with a federal criminal misdemeanor for refusing to leave an area that had been closed for reasons of “public safety.” He said he remains outraged that the federal government pursued charges against him at the taxpayers’ expense.
SPJ’s support, Hansen said, brought national attention to his case.
“I am very grateful for the legal and financial assistance and moral support that SPJ has shown throughout this ordeal,” said Hansen, who received a $1,000 Legal Defense Fund grant from the Society.
In early August, SPJ President Kyle Elyse Niederpruem spoke and wrote to U.S. Forest Service officials asking them to review the criminal case brought against the 36-year-old journalist. Hansen, who was displaying officially recognized press credentials, was arrested in Vail, Colo., after asking U.S. Forest Service officials where the press boundary was located at the protest.
Hansen had faced six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. He also rejected a “diversion contract” offered by the United States Attorney’s Office in Denver that would have required him to agree to a six-month period of “supervision.” The U.S. Attorney’s office could have “initiated prosecution” if Hansen failed to be a good citizen during that time period.
“This is an incredible waste of taxpayer money,” wrote Niederpruem, an assistant city editor at The Indianapolis Star. “This case should never have gone this far, a fact that has also caught the attention of members of Congress.”
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also wrote a letter in support of Hansen’s case and pointed out the public’s interest in the U.S. Forest Service protest Hansen was covering when arrested.
“My first inclination is, it’s about damn time (that the government drop the case),” said Hansen’s lawyer, William S. Richardson. “I don’t think there’s ever been any doubt that Brian was doing anything but acting in his professional capacity as a journalist. Even a case being brought like this and ultimately dismissed can have a chilling effect.”
Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the Denver U.S. Attorney’s office, said the decision to drop Hansen’s charges was made at the district level, but he refused comment on what influenced that decision.
“It was a policy decision that was made above and beyond the merits of the case,” Dorschner said.
Christine Tatum, the Society’s Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, said she hopes government officials and SPJ representatives can avoid cases like Hansen’s by working together on media access policies.
“I think that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Attorney’s office made the right decision in this matter, given that neither organization was acting under policies or guidelines concerning media access that were thoughtfully crafted with input from the nation’s largest and most broad-based professional journalism organization,” Tatum said. “The Society has offered on numerous occasions to provide resources and feedback concerning how the government should handle media access to any number of events, and we really hope they’ll take us up on the offer.”
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund offers financial assistance to journalists. To apply for an LDF grant in situations like these, contact Tatum at 312/658-3874 or firstname.lastname@example.org.