Government drops case against reporter arrested during Colorado protest
After pressure from the nation's largest journalism organization, the
government has dropped a year-old criminal misdemeanor charge against a
reporter arrested while covering a public protest on federal land last year,
according to the reporter's lawyers.
At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service has revised its policy for
media access to federal property by adding specific guidelines for the arrest
Former Colorado Daily
reporter Brian Hansen, 36, had faced six months in prison or a $5,000 fine if
convicted of the Forest Service's criminal charge. He was arrested July 6,
1999, at an environmental protest for refusing to leave an area of the White
River National Forest in Vail, Colo., which had been closed for “public
It was a story he had been covering for some time. The proposed
expansion of a Vail ski resort had stirred concerns about the possible effect
on the endangered Canada lynx. Environmental activists from the Ancient Forest
Rescue, Colorado Wild, Earth First!, and other organizations had planned and
publicly announced a protest on the first day of construction for the ski
Because he was not familiar with the area of the protest, Hansen had
asked Forest Service officials where he could legally stand to report on the
story, he told
The Freedom Forum Online.
Although reporters do have the right to cover public protests, they
are also required to follow the government's reasonable restrictions for
“The only option that (Forest Service official) Chuck Dunfee gave me
was where I knew I couldn't cover the story,” Hansen said. “He gestured towards
the bottom of the mountain, and said, 'Get off this mountain.'
“I decided to stay because I knew I had a First Amendment right, a
constitutional right to cover the news. I was not going to be intimidated and
run off by these federal officers,” he added.
He was then arrested.
The case was finally dismissed by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Robb on
Aug. 30 in Grand Junction, Colo., according Hansen's lawyer, Bill Richardson of
the law firm of Richardson & Richardson.
And while it took one year to resolve, Hansen didn't have to fight
The Society for Professional Journalists had been in talks with the
Forest Service in recent weeks to try and convince officials there to move for
dismissal of the charge. SPJ President Kyle Elyse Niederpruem had asked Kim
Thorsen, a deputy director of the Forest Service, for a “rational review” of
the case, according to an SPJ news release.
“The Forest Service pretty much washed their hands of (the case),”
The Freedom Forum Online. “If the Forest Service wanted to,
they could get rid of the charges. So could the U.S. Attorney's Office. They're
the ones who brought the charges against him.”
Hansen credits SPJ with getting the charges dropped.
And although he didn't believe the Forest Service officials were
conspiring against him at the protest, he said, he did feel singled out by the
U.S. Justice Department.
“I do think that the Justice Department had it in for me,” he said,
adding that the charges against him were “groundless, frivolous and
“I think they wanted to harass a member of the press [who] has written
unflattering coverage of the Justice Department and the Forest Service,”
Christine Tatum, chairwoman of the SPJ's Legal Defense Fund, which
gave Hansen a $1,000 grant for legal expenses, had also charged that the
Justice Department was singling out Hansen.
“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,” Tatum said in an SPJ press release before the case was resolved.
“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.”
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver,
denied that the government was targeting Hansen.
“We handle the prosecution of all cases the same. We pursue them with
equal vigor. We do not single out any one over another,” he told The Freedom
Dorschner said that on the day of the protest, Hansen had been given a
map of the closed area, and was instructed to leave the area within the 15
minutes allotted him. “He could have fully observed the protest from outside
the closure area,” Dorschner said.
However, Hansen maintained that it was only after he was arrested that
he realized there was an area he could have stood in to report the story.
Hansen had covered the environmental beat for the
ColoradoDaily, in Boulder, for the three years leading up
to the protest.
He is now working for the Environment News Service as assistant bureau
chief in Washington, D.C. He said he would probably still cover Forest Service
issues for ENS, but would not cover stories dealing with Forest Service law
Meanwhile, Forest Service officials adopted a new media-access policy
governing federal lands last month. According to an SPJ news release, the
policy was adopted with minimal input from journalists.
policy contains a new section, 58.16, on “Questioning or arrest of member
of news media.” It states: “In complying with the Department of Justice policy,
law enforcement personnel shall inform and receive approval from the Regional
Special Agent in Charge and the appropriate Department of Justice or U.S.
Attorney's office whenever possible before arresting a member of the news media
… for any offense which the member is suspected of having committed in
the course of, or arising out of, the coverage or investigation of a news
“Now, the issue has been institutionalized,” Niederpruem said in a
news release, emphasizing that such an inclusion in a federal policy presumes
that reporters can be, should be and will be arrested.
Of his own arrest, Hansen had this final thought.
“I spent thousands of dollars on this completely bogus prosecution
that carried out to harass me, intimidate me and teach me a lesson,” he said.
“And boy, what a lesson they taught me.”