A Failure to Communicate

How confusion and chaos led to a reporter's arrest -- and a First Amendment court test.

For Brian Hansen, 1999 should have been a year to look back on with unadulterated pride.

As a reporter for the Colorado Daily, a Boulder publication with a circulation of less than 30,000, Hansen did much of the heavy lifting throughout an investigation into the activities of Fran Raudenbush, a consultant hired by a fundraising arm of the University of Colorado-Boulder. The investigation eventually brought about the resignation last October of CU president John Buechner. For their efforts, Hansen and three colleagues -- editor Pamela White, managing editor Mark Collins and fellow reporter Terje Langeland -- were given the Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting for papers with a circulation of less than 100,000 by the Scripps Howard Foundation. The prize was even more satisfying because it came from Scripps, whose two highest-profile Colorado properties, the Rocky Mountain News and the Boulder Daily Camera, had gotten their clocks cleaned on the Buechner story by the much smaller Daily.

But Hansen, who's been with the Daily for about three years, has had little chance to bask in the glow of his achievement as a result of a different 1999 incident -- one that's had far unhappier consequences for him. On July 6 last year, he was arrested in Vail for failure to leave a "federal closure area" (land temporarily closed to the public by government order) during a protest by demonstrators opposed to an expansion of the Vail ski resort. And while the federal government has grudgingly admitted that Hansen was acting as a reporter at the time, it continues to pursue Hansen in court for what he sees as a simple mixup.

Colorado Daily reporter Brian Hansen has made his own headlines.
Susan Goldstein
Colorado Daily reporter Brian Hansen has made his own headlines.
Just before he was arrested, Brian Hansen (kneeling at left) takes notes while Forst Service officer Chuck Dunfee speaks to protesters.
Just before he was arrested, Brian Hansen (kneeling at left) takes notes while Forst Service officer Chuck Dunfee speaks to protesters.

Last summer, Hansen asked a U.S. District Court judge to dismiss the case, but a hearing on the motion, which was held in Grand Junction in late May and was supposed to be brief and to the point, somehow expanded into two days' worth of often passionate debate that touched upon everything from reportorial bias to the limitations of the First Amendment to the Constitution -- issues that could have implications for other journalists across the country.

Hansen faces a maximum of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted, and even though no one expects him to receive such a sentence, few figured that the case would still be dragging on more than a year later, either. (Hansen waived his right to a speedy trial in order to more fully defend himself.) There are also financial considerations: The Daily originally offered to pick up Hansen's legal costs, but when they started to mount, the paper had to bow out -- meaning that Hansen must now pay for his own defense. And if the motion to dismiss is denied when federal magistrate James Robb rules in the next month or so, his attorney's meter will continue ticking.

Key members of the U.S. Forest Service, which oversaw the Vail operation, and representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Justice Department, under whose jurisdiction the matter fell, either declined to comment for this article or severely constrained the topics they would address because the case hasn't been resolved. But Hansen is still talking -- and fighting -- in part because he fears that his conviction might result in more restrictions on the press.

"In light of my acknowledgment that it was a misunderstanding, it's significant that the government hasn't said, 'We know that Brian isn't a criminal, and we'll drop the case,'" he notes. "They've spent tens of thousands of dollars prosecuting me, and you have to ask yourself why: Why are they coming after me so hard?"

Editor White doesn't have an answer to that question, but she's pretty sure the government would love to be able to point to a court case supporting the banishment of reporters from closure areas. "It dawned on us that if they won, they would have a federal ruling that would allow them to strong-arm the press over protests on public land," she says. "I think the Forest Service is really itching for this. From their perspective, it would be nice to keep the press away so that they could handle things however they wanted, without ramifications. To me, that's what this is all about."

Another possible clue to the government's high interest in those arrested at the July 1999 protest, including Hansen, can be found in a far hotter demonstration that took place the previous year.

In October 1998, numerous environmental groups were actively rallying against a plan by Vail Resorts, which owns the ski area, to turn more than 800 acres of a tract dubbed Category III into trails and runs. (Activists believe the land is a habitat for the lynx, an endangered species.) But during the same weekend that approximately forty members of organizations such as Ancient Forest Rescue (AFR) were camped on the mountain to demonstrate against the expansion, unknown individuals set a series of fires that destroyed Vail's landmark Two Elk Lodge, four ski lifts and several other structures, causing $12 million of damage in what has been reported as the costliest act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history.

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