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SPJ asks federal officials to drop criminal case against journalist


Contacts: Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ president, 317/633-9385; Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, 312/222-5184; Bruce Brown, SPJ legal counsel, (202) 861-1500.

INDIANAPOLIS - The nation’s largest journalism organization is asking federal officials to drop a criminal case against reporter Brian Hansen, who was arrested while covering a public protest on federal lands last year in Colorado.

The Society of Professional Journalists, with nearly 10,000 members, had asked U.S. Forest Service officials to review the misdemeanor charge brought against the 36-year-old journalist. Hansen faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. Today, he’s been given a deadline to consider signing a “diversion contract”with the United States Attorney’s Office in Denver.

The contract would require Hansen to agree to a six-month period of “supervision.” The U.S. Attorney's office reserves the right to “initiate prosecution” should Hansen fail to be a good citizen during that time period.

“This is an incredible waste of taxpayer money,” said Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, president of the Society and an assistant city editor of The Indianapolis Star. “This case should never have gone this far, a fact that has also caught the attention of members of Congress.”

SPJ contacted Kim Thorsen, a deputy director of the forest service, to ask for a rational review of the case. Forest service officials also have issued a new access policy governing federal lands, a process that went forward with little input from working journalists. When asked to provide a draft of the policy for review, the Society also was denied. The denial is legal under existing Freedom of Information laws that restrict release of “draft” copies.

The new policy, which has been finalized and released to the public, has a provision titled: “Questioning or arrest of member of news media.”

“Now, the issue has been institutionalized,” Niederpruem said, noting that such a reference in a federal policy presumes that arrests of reporters can be made, should be made and will happen.

Hansen, who is starting a new post as the assistant bureau chief in Washington, D.C., for the Environmental News Service, is paying his own mounting legal expenses. He previously received a $1,000 Legal Defense Fund grant from the Society.

“We shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this case is too small or too remote to have much of an impact on the way journalists everywhere do their jobs,”said SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman Christine Tatum. “The U.S. Justice Department’s fervent efforts to prosecute this case indicate its desire to make an example of Mr. Hansen for journalists nationwide. The department has a tremendous interest in gaining greater control over media access to events in which federal officials are involved. The result, of course, is that journalists will find it tougher to hold the government accountable for its actions.”

The case also has caught the attention of Congressman Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado. Udall wrote, in part, “… I do think prosecutors, in considering whether to press a case, should recognize that there is public interest in such events as this protest, that members of the press are likely to seek to cover them, and that a reporter could inadvertently be arrested because of a misunderstanding as to his role and presence at the site.”

Udall went on to write in his July 20 letter: “Accordingly, it seems to me that it would be appropriate for you to take a hard look at this case and determine if its continued prosecution is absolutely necessary for justice to be properly served.”

Journalists have a right to be present at protests and they are obliged to follow reasonable rules for access. Hansen, who was displaying officially recognized press credentials, asked Forest Service officials where the press boundary was located at the protest in Vail. Rather than point him to a location where his presence would not be a hindrance - but where he would still be within visual site of the protest - officials ordered Hanson “off the mountain.”

“We feel Hansen was being reasonable,” Niederpruem said. “We feel the forest service was not.”

Niederpruem also said publishers of newspapers and general managers of broadcast companies need to be more vigilant. A series of arrests in the past year, including most recently at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, should alert journalists to tread carefully when covering the news - or spend a night in jail.

“When news happens, it needs to be covered - and without interference,” she said.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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