U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Dakota Pipeline operator subpoenas Unicorn Riot reporter over coverage of demonstrations

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 17, 2021

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
September 27, 2023 - Update

Dakota Pipeline operator appeals decision quashing subpoena for reporter’s documents

The company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline project appealed a Minnesota court’s decision quashing subpoenas for documents from Unicorn Riot and its reporter Niko Georgiades on Sept. 27, 2023, the media outlet reported.

Energy Transfer LP subpoenaed the nonprofit and Georgiades in March 2021 for documents related to the 2016 and 2017 protests against the pipeline project. The move was part of legal efforts targeting various Minnesota environmental groups and activists who had participated in the protests. When Unicorn Riot and Georgiades refused to comply, Energy Transfer filed a motion to compel.

Then, in December 2022, a district judge ruled that the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act, or MFFIA, protected both the documents themselves and Unicorn Riot as a media organization. At the same time, he also ordered Unicorn Riot and Georgiades to produce logs of the privileged documents and the documents for “in camera” inspection, or private review by the judge, if asked.

In response to Energy Transfer’s appeal, Unicorn Riot said that it would file a brief before the end of October 2023, supporting the court’s previous ruling and “challenging its requirement that we produce a privilege log in violation of our rights under the MFFIA and the First Amendment.”

Forcing the media to serve as sources of discovery in private litigation “can have drastic effects on newsrooms’ budgets,” said Christopher Proczko, the attorney representing Unicorn Riot in the pending appeal, “especially if they must constantly fight subpoenas from people or companies who do not like the coverage they receive — which takes away from the resources they can devote to reporting the news.”

December 16, 2022 - Update

Judge quashes subpoena for Unicorn Riot reporter’s documents related to 2016-2017 DAPL protests

A Minnesota judge quashed subpoenas on Dec. 16, 2022, demanding documents from Unicorn Riot and its reporter Niko Georgiades related to protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Energy Transfer LP, the company behind the pipeline project, subpoenaed Georgiades and the nonprofit media organization in March 2021 as part of its legal efforts against environmental groups and activists in that state who protested the project in 2016 and 2017. In denying the subpoenas, District Judge Joseph R. Klein ruled that the documents sought by the energy company were deemed privileged under the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act. The state statute also protects Georgiades as a media member from disclosing unpublished information.

While denying Energy Transfer LP’s motion to compel, or force, Unicorn Riot and Georgiades to comply with the subpoena, Klein did order that the journalist and outlet produce a log of all privileged documents and, if requested, present the files to the court for an in-camera review.

Neither Unicorn Riot nor Georgiades responded to requests for comment.

March 17, 2021

Unicorn Riot and its reporter Niko Georgiades were subpoenaed on March 17, 2021, by Energy Transfer LP, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, for all documents and communications relating to the nonprofit media organization’s coverage of the pipeline project.

The subpoenas are part of the pipeline company’s legal effort against several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, and activists that protested against the pipeline in 2016 and 2017, according to The Intercept and other outlets.

Energy Transfer demanded all documents including video and audio recordings concerning both actual and planned demonstrations relating to DAPL or Energy Transfer on several specific dates in August through November of 2016, in addition to information about the organization's structure and employees. Unicorn Riot’s subpoena is documented here. Georgiades, a Unicorn Riot reporter who covered events at Standing Rock, was separately served a subpoena for similar materials.

Greenpeace labeled the company’s legal effort a SLAPP suit, which stands for a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics, The Intercept reported. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Energy Transfer to withdraw the subpoenas. CPJ is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Energy Transfer didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment from the Tracker.

Freddy Martinez, a member of the Unicorn Riot collective, told the Tracker that its media attorney responded to both subpoenas with a letter invoking their shield privilege, saying "the records that may or may not exist are covered by the law and that we [Unicorn Riot] are not a party to their litigation."

"Our counsel met with their counsel and Energy Transfer expressed continued interest in furthering their subpoena," Martinez added. "However, as far as we know, they haven’t filed anything in court and may be running out of time to do so."

On March 24, 2021, Unicorn Riot launched a legal defense fund to help cover its legal bills, saying it takes seriously its obligation to protect its sources and not yield to demands for its footage and records from companies or the government.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].