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Veteran reporter arrested, strip-searched in Minnesota while covering anti-pipeline protest

June 7, 2021

Authorities in Hubbard County, Minnesota, detained and strip-searched journalist Alan Weisman and charged him with gross misdemeanor trespassing charges, according to Weisman and County Attorney Jonathan Frieden, who both spoke with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

At about 5 p.m. on June 7, an officer with the local sheriff’s department in Hubbard County, Minnesota, arrested Weisman, a freelance journalist on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, while he was covering a protest against the construction of an oil pipeline, Weisman said.

The deputies brought Weisman to the local sheriff’s department, where officers strip-searched him and confiscated his phone, voice recorder, notebooks, and prescription medications, he said. He told CPJ, a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, that authorities released him at about 9:30 p.m., returned his possessions, and did not inform him of any charges filed against him.

In a phone interview, Frieden told CPJ that his office had filed gross misdemeanor trespassing charges against Weisman, but said that the charges had not been formally approved by a judge as of today. He said he was not aware that Weisman was a journalist at the time his office filed the charges, but added that Minnesota state law does not provide special dispensation for journalists in such cases.

Under Minnesota law, the maximum fine that can be imposed for a gross misdemeanor is $3,000.

Law enforcement arrested about 250 people on trespassing, public nuisance, and unlawful assembly charges in relation to the protest, according to news reports.

Weisman told CPJ he did not know why he was arrested. He said that he was standing in an area with other journalists and was wearing two lanyards with press credentials when a sheriff’s deputy tapped him on the shoulder and said he was under arrest.

“It was very clear that I was a journalist,” Weisman told CPJ, saying that he had a notebook in his hand and was conducting interviews at the time. He said that the officer did not give him any warning before the arrest or issue any commands to leave the area.

The officer placed Weisman in a sheriff’s department vehicle along with eight other people who were arrested at the protest, he said. He told CPJ he was able to call his friends and colleagues from inside the vehicle, but said officers repeatedly denied his right to a phone call once he arrived at the station.

He added that officers initially refused to give him his medication while in detention, but eventually did so. When Weisman asked a sheriff’s deputy why he was being released, they said that he was released so he could continue taking his medication on schedule.

In emails to CPJ yesterday, Cory Aukes, the Hubbard County sheriff, said that deputies would not arrest a credentialed journalist who was “obviously documenting the situation,” but said, “that wasn’t the case here.”

Aukes said that if Weisman “was in an area that he had permission to be in, we wouldn’t arrest him.” He added that the issue of whether Weisman will face any criminal charges “is between the Hubbard County Attorney and Mr. Weisman.”

Weisman said that, upon his release, a local religious organization that helps newly released detainees transported him back to his rental car.

Weisman has contributed on environmental issues and other topics to news outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, among others, and wrote The World Without Us. Weisman is under contract for his next book with Dutton/ Penguin Random House and is a senior producer and the board treasurer at Homeland Productions, an independent, nonprofit journalism collective, according to his biography on that group’s website.

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

June 14, 2021 Update

Journalist Alan Weisman received notice that he was charged with trespassing on critical public service facilities, a gross misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and/or a fine of up to $3,000, according to a copy of the charge sheet seen by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Weisman was arrested while covering an anti-pipeline protest in Minnesota on June 7, 2021, but was not issued a charge sheet when he was released from detention, he said. Weisman told CPJ in a phone conversation that he received a copy of the charges, dated June 14, on June 25 or 26 via post.

Hubbard County, Minnesota, also issued a court summons to Weisman that will require him to appear via zoom on July 16, according to a copy of the summons that was seen by CPJ.

July 13, 2021 Update

On July 13, 2021, Assistant County Attorney Anna Emmerling dismissed without prejudice the criminal trespassing charge against veteran journalist Alan Weisman, citing prosecutorial discretion, according to the dismissal document seen by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Weisman was arrested on June 7 and charged with trespassing while on assignment for the Los Angeles Times covering an anti-pipeline protest in Park Rapids, Minnesota.

Weisman told CPJ via email that this format of dismissing the charges means that authorities can re-institute charges against him at any time or charge him in another court. 

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