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.
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.
AFR denounced the arson, which a shadowy outfit called the Earth Liberation Front claimed to have committed. But authorities remained suspicious of AFR. By the end of 1999, fifteen AFR loyalists had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury looking into the blazes, with at least two of them refusing to name anyone else who might have participated in their activities during the dates in question.
For its part, AFR didn't drop its objection to the Category III expansion: Its members were among those on hand at the protest Hansen was covering in July 1999.
This was not new territory for Hansen. He'd been writing about Category III since about the time of the fires; for instance, he had looked into the protestors' contention that the scheme was motivated more by a desire to pump up the Vail real-estate market than by any ski-area needs.
Vail Associates spokesman Paul Witt, who boasts that the nearly completed expansion, dubbed Blue Sky Basin, helped Vail increase its number of skier days last season despite statewide downturns, doesn't accuse the Daily of slanting such articles in favor of environmentalists, and Hansen points out that he always allowed Witt and others on his side of the issue to voice their opinions. But Hansen says the pieces often generated "some very heated responses from Vail Associates when they were unhappy with the coverage," including a less-than-complimentary letter to the editor from Witt.
"That's fine," Hansen says. "I stand behind every word I've written."
Since most of the Daily's articles about Vail -- including an editorial by White -- raised questions about the Category III proposal, it's no surprise that AFR and its environmental brethren (Colorado Wild, Sinapu, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and more) often informed the paper about upcoming protests in advance. So it was that staffers learned of a demonstration to take place at the base of Vail's Vista Bahn ski lift on July 1, 1999, when Vail Associates was slated to begin construction on its new additions.
Teach-ins and educational speeches were supposed to be the order of the day, but Hansen suspected that what he calls "civil-disobedience-related activities" might also be on the agenda, possibly including individuals locking themselves to equipment in an attempt to prevent crews from tearing into the hillsides. That particularly interested editor White, since a federal district court in California had just decreed that authorities had the right to apply pepper spray directly to the eyes of demonstrators, as had taken place during a protest against logging in the office of Congressman Frank Riggs. (In May, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overrode this decision, giving the protestors permission to sue the agencies involved for the way they were treated.) "We felt that was really alarming," White says of the ruling, "and we wanted to see how the authorities handled things if it happened here."
To that end, Hansen headed to the Vail area on June 30, setting up camp in the Two Elk Campground in nearby Minturn, which was to be the protestors' base of operations. There he quizzed activists as well as law-enforcement officers from the U.S. Forest Service, who seemed to be anticipating an incident of some sort. Indeed, the Forest Service had announced on June 29 that 1,500 acres of Vail-area land, much of it in Category III, would be closed beginning July 2. Maintaining a safe environment for construction was the reason reported for the closure.
The Forest Service kept portions of the acreage off limits until the fall, with closures resuming again this month; 450 acres are currently not open to the public. But demonstrators who talked to Hansen last year believed the rationale for the initial closure was to prevent protests -- a common complaint about the government's use of federal closure areas.
His interviews concluded, Hansen bedded down for the night, being careful not to pitch his tent too close to those of the demonstrators, to make it clear that he was not one of them. He was there early the next morning when a young woman drove into the camp yelling that one of her number had blocked Mill Creek Road, the main access route running along the front of Vail Mountain.
The woman gave Hansen directions to the site, warning that he might not be able to drive directly to it because officers were blocking the road. For that reason, he parked his car in Vail and hiked up the mountain from the base of the Vista Bahn, from which he could neither see nor hear anything that was taking place on the mountain above. The climb wasn't easy; the slope was so steep that Hansen says he was on his hands and knees, clawing at greenery. But when he finally reached the site, he instantly knew what all the excitement was about.
Smack dab in the middle of the road was what's known among activists as a "tripod": three long wooden poles propped against each other, with ropes threaded through a series of carabiners (oblong rings) supporting a protestor -- in this case, Jeff Berman -- approximately 25 feet off the ground. Getting Berman out of there safely would be tricky, and not only because a gaggle of his supporters were hectoring the officers already on the scene. Tripods are rickety by nature, preventing anyone from climbing up them without risking a collapse.
Cops called to a demonstration that Hansen had covered about a month earlier at the State Capitol had ultimately turned to a hook-and-ladder fire truck to extricate someone from a tripod erected there. Vail authorities, led by Forest Service officer Chuck Dunfee, had the same idea; upon discovering the tripod, an officer radioed into town for a cherry picker. But as the vehicle rolled toward Berman, several protestors flopped in front of it -- and as soon as it stopped, one of them, Mark Ingel, a San Diegan known to everyone as Mookie, slithered beneath the truck and attached himself to its drive shaft with a kryptonite lock he'd wrapped around his neck.
By the time members of the Vail Fire Department arrived to cut Mookie loose, they had plenty of company: between thirty and fifty protestors, a slew of officers from various law-enforcement agencies, and media representatives from Denver TV stations and assorted publications, among them Hansen and the Vail Daily Trail's Robert Kelly-Goss, who testified on Hansen's behalf at the Grand Junction hearing. The reporters were allowed to stand on the side of the road within ten feet or so of the truck, watching the sparks fly as a man with a grinder sliced into the kryptonite lock while Mookie shrieked "Fuck!" and his fellow protestors hollered, "Stop! You're torturing him!" After Mookie was dislodged, the hurting continued: Hansen says that when Mookie went limp to slow his removal, an officer used a pain-compliance hold (hyperextending his wrist and thumb) to move him along.
With Mookie gone, the driver was able to move the cherry picker closer to the tripod in spite of protestors throwing themselves in front of its wheels; officers removed them "like potato sacks," Hansen says. More successful was demonstrator Emily Wolf, whom Hansen had interviewed numerous times in the past. Wolf attached herself to the cherry picker's bucket with a gadget referred to as a "black bear" -- a V-shaped metal sleeve that, in combination with chains, carabiners and rebar, allows individuals to lock themselves to whatever they wish in a manner that makes disentanglement exceedingly difficult.
Once it became clear that Wolf wasn't going anywhere for a while, the Forest Service's Dunfee decided that the officers should withdraw, leaving the protestors, the tripod and the cherry picker right where they were. On this day, then, the demonstrators won. But their victory was to be short-lived.
The following weekend, which included Independence Day, was an important one for Vail's tourist industry, packing in bikers, hikers, skaters and others attracted by concerts and holiday activities.
To avoid having the festivities marred by a nasty confrontation, officials took their time in determining how to rid themselves of the anti-Category III contingent. Instead of closing Mill Creek Road, they posted a sign at the bottom of the mountain informing locals and visitors that they'd encounter protestors if they used it. According to Hansen, the placard noted that demonstrators might try to talk to them but shouldn't be considered dangerous. Hansen was also present a couple days later when Dunfee and another Forest Service officer, Ken Rice, promised to let protestors leave the tripod in place through the weekend if they gave back the cherry picker -- a deal that was summarily rejected.
Still, the timing of this offer implied to Hansen, who'd already filed one story about the protest, that authorities would move in as soon as the holiday was over. After discussing his options with White, he drove to Boulder on July 4 to get a good night's sleep. The next morning, he spoke with some of the protestors by cell phone and became convinced that a raid was imminent. Shortly thereafter, he and Daily photographer Mark Slupe headed back to Vail to spend another night on the mountain. Upon their arrival, they encountered the Daily Trail's Kelly-Goss, who also believed that the Forest Service's patience was near its end. Hansen and Kelly-Goss agreed before hitting the sack that they would alert each other if anything happened.
About twenty minutes later, Hansen was stirred by Kelly-Goss, who said he thought he'd heard some officers over by the tripod and the cherry picker. Near there, the pair saw a glow on the side of the road that, during the motion-to-dismiss hearing, was later confirmed to be officers using night-vision equipment. Fearing that they'd be mistaken for protestors, the reporters identified themselves aloud and held up their press ID cards.
When no one replied, they returned to their tents only to be awakened again at around 4:30 a.m. by voices talking about how someone had hit several automobiles parked below the blockade with paintballs. The reporters investigated, but damage turned out to be minor. Hansen, Kelly-Goss and Slupe were talking about the day to come when they heard a commotion: Several dozen weapon-wielding, camouflage-wearing officers had materialized on the hillside, with half of them storming toward the blockade from above and the rest racing toward it from below. "They're coming!" the activists screamed. "They're coming!"
After the troops established a perimeter around the tripod and the cherry picker, Officer Dunfee, who was in charge of the operation, began reading a federal closure order signed by Martha Ketelle, supervisor of the White River National Forest. The order gave authorities permission to expel everyone from just over forty acres of the mountain until all of the protestors were removed, ostensibly for safety reasons. Those present had fifteen minutes to comply or they would be arrested.
As protestors shouted their displeasure, Dunfee offered a map of the closure area to anyone who wanted one. But Hansen, who during the reading had been kneeling in front of Dunfee armed with a notepad and a tape recorder, couldn't figure out from the map where he was and where he was supposed to go. Before he could ask Dunfee for clarification, Kelly-Goss beat him to it: "Where's the press area?" Both Hansen and Kelly-Goss say Dunfee responded by gesturing down the hill and telling them that there would be a public-information officer at the base of the Vista Bahn.
Having been to the Vista Bahn, Hansen knew that the location would prevent him from seeing if officers were using pepper spray on Berman, Wolf and Nicole Rosmarino, another protestor who'd locked herself to the cherry picker's front axle in the five days since the tripod was erected. He says he tried to explain this to Dunfee at least two more times as the fifteen minutes slipped away, but to no avail; at one point amid the muddle and mayhem, he quotes Dunfee as snapping, "Get off this mountain!"
Slupe was fine with that -- he had no interest in being arrested -- and Kelly-Goss felt that arguing in such a circumstance would be useless. But Hansen, after talking to White via cell phone and explaining what was happening, decided that moving to the base of the Vista Bahn was an unreasonable infringement on his ability to cover the story. "I'm a reporter," he thought. "A member of the press, with First Amendment rights. I'm not going to get in anybody's way, and I have a job to do. I'm not leaving."
In the end, though, he did. Wearing handcuffs.
Afterward, the ironies started piling up. Among them:
·The officers didn't use pepper spray or other pain-compliance techniques on the protestors, who were freed well before noon. Even White, in an editorial that defended Hansen while describing the lynx as "a small feline followed closely by an armed federal agent carrying a shovel," complimented the Eagle County Sheriff's Department and the fire-and-rescue personnel who'd handled the chore.
·The edge of the closure area, where protestors congregated throughout the morning, was only about 75 feet from the blockade and would have provided Hansen, Kelly-Goss and Slupe with a better-than-decent view of what was happening.
·Later that day, a protestor, Joel Lathbury, blocked another Vail route, Lime Creek Road, with what's known in activist parlance as a "batmobile" -- a junker of a car that's turned upside down and has a hole cut in its roof through which a demonstrator thrusts his hands into a pit filled with cement. In this case, the vehicle was leaking gas, which made the situation a potentially explosive one. But Lynn Young, the public-information officer for the Forest Service who was stationed at Vista Bahn that day, escorted media representatives, including Kelly-Goss and Slupe, to within a yard of the mess.
For Hansen, meanwhile, the humiliations just kept coming. Upon learning from Slupe that her reporter had been arrested, White drove to Vail to bail him out, discovering too late that he'd been transferred to Denver for processing. Hence, no one from the Daily was present for his brief court appearance that evening, at which he was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond. And the next morning, Hansen was greeted by a Rocky Mountain News headline lumping him in with the six protestors who were also arrested on July 6. This information, which the News later corrected, had come from a press release written by Young, who knew from personal experience that Hansen was a reporter: Young had been interviewed by him the previous day.
Institutionally, the Daily was totally supportive of Hansen, as might be expected of a publication with its roots: Founded in 1892, it was once CU's official paper, but in 1972, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the university's efforts to censor its Vietnam war coverage, regents voted to eliminate its funding. The staff reacted by turning the Daily into an independent entity owned and operated by its employees.
The paper was financially supportive of Hansen, too -- at first. White and company hired Faegre & Benson, a pricey Denver law firm with a strong reputation in First Amendment circles, on Hansen's behalf. But the Daily was already swooning under the weight of legal charges amassed in the Buechner investigation; the paper had sued CU and the University of Colorado Foundation Inc., a fundraising arm at the school, to obtain documents about former consultant Raudenbush. (The university released the papers in June 1999, after which the Daily dropped the suit.)
When the first Faegre & Benson bill arrived, "everybody had a heart attack, because it was $6,000," White says. "That became the cut-off point. We wish we could do more, but we can't."
So Hansen hired Bill Richardson, a Grand Junction attorney who'd already been helping out on the case. For Richardson, the subject of journalists' rights struck close to home: His family once owned a Mississippi paper, the Greenwood Commonwealth, and during his '60s-era childhood, his father would take him along on civil-rights stories and the like. "I got politicized early on," Richardson says.
Richardson filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Hansen on September 30. About a month later, on October 28, Craig Wallace, a Grand Junction-based assistant U.S. attorney handling the case for his immediate superior, Tom Strickland, and the Justice Department countered with a supplemental response to the motion to dismiss, arguing that Hansen had no First Amendment right to gather news within the closure area, "which was 'a crime scene,'" and asked that Hansen's complaints about not being close enough to the action to adequately report on it be examined at a motions hearing. Wallace declined to comment for this article.
Magistrate Robb granted Wallace's wish in duplicate, scheduling not one, but two hearings into the matter. The first, held February 28, looked into the one common issue raised by Hansen and the six arrested demonstrators, who had also filed motions to dismiss. "We all said it was not a valid closure order," Richardson divulges. "The thumbnail version is that the Forest Service has a certain set of regulations about how they have to publicize and post and inform the public about a closure order, and we've all argued that they didn't do this; they didn't follow their own rules."
On May 24, a second hearing focused exclusively on Hansen. At this proceeding, Wallace noted that Hansen was acting in his professional capacity as a news reporter and wasn't a demonstrator -- a concession he first made in the October 28 filing. This admission was especially important to Hansen given the inaccurate press release and the Rocky Mountain News report, as well as the Justice Department's written rejection of a Freedom of Information Act request Hansen made in January. In it, the department stated, "The decision to arrest and prosecute you was based on the fact that you were a protestor, not that you were a member of the news media."
But in his opening remarks, Wallace accused Hansen of "giving misleading information, or inaccurate information, about where he could be and what his access could be to cover the story." He added that "it's the government's position that Brian Hansen could stand at the closure boundary, and the boundaries were communicated to him...We think it was more than adequate under the First Amendment."
To bolster this line of reasoning, Wallace questioned several Forest Service employees who'd been on the mountain that day: officers Chuck Dunfee, Ken Rice and Tom Healy, incident commander Bill Hahnenberg, and public-information officer Lynn Young. (Of these witnesses, only Young was allowed to speak to Westword.) All five said that there was no attempt to corral journalists at the bottom of the mountain where they couldn't see what was going on, with several pointing out that the plan for the raid made no specific distinction between the press and other citizens; reporters had as much right to stand at the boundary of the closure area as anyone else. In addition, the Forest Service types agreed that after the perimeter was established around the cherry picker and the tripod, officers explained, to anyone who asked, where the press and the public could legally stand and still be within plain sight of the blockade. And many demonstrators obviously did find their way to these locations, observing the unloosing of their comrades over a span of hours.
But the witnesses for the prosecution also acknowledged that the raid prompted an unruly scene, as became clear from a Forest Service videotape of the incident that was admitted into evidence. For instance, an unidentified protestor can be heard howling, "That's why they're making us leave -- so we don't have to watch the torture, so the media doesn't get to portray it to the public!" over ear-splitting clatter and tumult. And as Hansen was being arrested, Emily Wolf, still hooked to the cherry picker by the black bear, declared, "Brian, you're my hero! Brian, you inspire me!"
Under questioning by Wallace, Dunfee said that he saw the bedlam created by the demonstrators as purposeful. He described protestors' questions about where they could stand and still be close enough to observe what was going on as "a delaying tactic." To undermine this ploy, he went on, he utilized orders like "Get off this mountain!" -- the phrase Hansen testified Dunfee directed at him. "I would use that in the vein that the lower portion of this closure order is the bottom of the mountain, the lower portion of the mountain," Dunfee said. "I was also trying to control the situation...'Just get out,' 'Get off,' 'Get away'...any of those other types of terminologies I could use to control the situation and let them know that they had no choice but to leave the closure area, that we were very determined to enforce that."
Further, Dunfee stated that queries about a "press boundary" caused him to recall "that our public-information folks had set up a spot here at the bottom, at Vista Bahn, to deal with the press as they came in. So that was the next thought in my mind, which is that it was down by the Vista Bahn."
Under cross-examination by Richardson, Dunfee continued to insist that he had spelled out the specifics of the closure area to Hansen in understandable terms. But he acknowledged that no provisions had been made for reporters who were on site when the raid occurred, as differentiated from those who showed up later, and conceded that during the conversations with Hansen captured on video, he can be seen making only one gesture: pointing down the mountain.
"Did you tell anybody from the press during the fifteen-minute time that they could only go to the Vista Bahn and they could only cover the story from the Vista Bahn?" Wallace asked him.
Dunfee replied, "That was not my intention..."
During his own testimony, Hansen said that he appreciated the need for a closure area to maintain the safety of all parties involved and that he in no way wanted to prevent officers from doing their duty. Further, he emphasized that had he known how near the boundary was to the blockade, he would have been happy to comply.
But Wallace seemed more interested in establishing whether or not Hansen and the Daily were biased against the Forest Service, Vail Associates and the Category III expansion. In questions directed to Hansen and editor White, who was also called to testify, he repeatedly touched on alleged favoritism, pointing out, for example, that one Hansen article featured the address of a Web site put up by opponents of the expansion (stopvail.net) but not that of Vail Associates (vail.com). He also drew attention to what he referred to as the Daily's motto: "Find the bastards and nail them to the wall."
In reply, Hansen avoided taking sides in the Vail scrap -- an approach he continues to take. "This wasn't advocacy journalism," he says. "I was just reporting what I'd learned. I don't make this stuff up."
Nonetheless, Wallace returned to this theme during his closing remarks, on day two of the hearing. "We have talked about bias here," he said, "and I think this defendant went up there with a liberal bias, an environmental bias -- whatever you want to call it, an anti-Forest Service bias -- expecting the worst, looking for it. And I think he made up his mind: 'I'm not leaving this area. I'm not even going down that road'...I think he decided, 'You can't arrest me. I'm a member of the press.'"
Richardson objected to Wallace's bias remarks in the hearing, because he saw them as an attempt to place limits on the press. "Under First Amendment law, it doesn't matter if a reporter is from the most outrageous left-wing pamphlet. As long as they're acting as a journalist, they still have First Amendment rights. You don't have to be a reporter from the Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News to be covered; my feeling is that you could be there from Earth First magazine and still be cloaked with that protection. The Constitution doesn't say you won't be protected if you espouse a point of view in your writings."
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit journalism-rights organization in Arlington, Virginia, echoes these sentiments. "This country was largely shaped by journalists like Ben Franklin, who had opinions about the things they wrote about. So I find it offensive that you could trump up a charge against someone because what they write about or their interpretation of the news is sympathetic to one side or the other."
In Dalglish's opinion, arrests of journalists have become more common of late. She notes that numerous reporters and photographers were caught up in police sweeps during protests of the World Trade Organization gathering in Seattle (which Hansen also covered), including Kery Murakami, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who wrote about being jailed for refusing to leave an area designated as a no-protest zone. (Murakami says he behaved as he did because "one, I had a job to do, and two, under city law, reporters and independent observers are exempt from the dispersal law.") The charges against Murakami were later dropped, but freelance photographer Larry Erickson wasn't so lucky; he was convicted for refusing to leave a crime scene in Redlands, California, and is presently serving a six-month sentence for it.
With massive protests expected at the Republican and Democratic conventions later this summer, Dalglish expects that even more journalists will be arrested -- and she fears that Hansen's case doesn't bode well for the future. "It has the potential to set precedents, since it's in federal court. I worry about things like this being reported in case law, and if he were to lose in court and appeal it to a court that wrote nasty things about the need to control the media, it could cause a lot of problems. I think that's a ways down the road, but I could envision a scenario where it might happen. So we've just got to hope that the judge would understand how the First Amendment works."
A comment made by Magistrate Robb during the May hearings -- he quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or a newspaper without government, he'd pick the latter -- gives Hansen reason for at least some optimism. But Robb has announced that he's going to retire in January. If Hansen's case isn't dismissed before then, there's every chance a new judge will up wind overseeing it. And no one knows what Robb's successor will think of Jefferson.
Hansen, however, has more immediate concerns. He's got to figure out how he's going to pay Richardson, but he has to be careful whose largesse he accepts: The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center has offered to help him raise funds, but he believes that would only lend credence to Wallace's bias assertion. A more promising lead comes from the Society of Professional Journalists, where Christine Tatum, the head of SPJ's Chicago-based legal defense fund, is looking into what her association can do.
"These cases have a way of snowballing," Tatum says. "And I think it's very telling that this is a misdemeanor that the feds are absolutely not dropping."
Boulder Congressman Mark Udall, who learned about the case from Hansen, has similar concerns, as he expressed in a July 5 letter to Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben. After noting that "I am not attempting to second-guess the decisions of the arresting officials or the course that this case has taken over the past year," Udall stated, "I do think that 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 misunderstandings as to his role and presence at the site."
Alan Salazar, Udall's chief of staff, says the congressman took the action he did because "reporters have to cover controversial issues and crime scenes, and if you begin to arrest reporters when they're close to a scene, that can have a chilling effect on the First Amendment."
Salazar adds that Udall would be equally troubled if evidence suggested that the government was using closure areas to prevent the exercise of free speech. "These are hard lines to draw, but the congressman's main interest is that they be drawn on the side of the public's right to know about these controversies. You wouldn't want the federal bureaucracy to use a closure as an excuse or a tool to hide their own mistakes."
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No one at the Justice Department has gotten back to Udall -- and John Russell, a Washington, D.C., spokesman for the department says he can't talk about a case under litigation. Likewise, Jeff Dorschner, speaking for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, restricts his comments to the charges against Hansen and other procedural matters. As for Forest Service public-information officer Young, who was in Vail last July but didn't see the final act on Mill Creek Road (he remained at the base of the Vista Bahn for most of the day), he refuses to talk about his testimony and touches on the facts of the case in only the most general way.
"Our job was to open the road, and the closure order made it very clear that anybody who didn't leave the closure area in fifteen minutes was subject to arrest," Young says. "Now, what we didn't do was poll each person about what their occupation was or whether they were this person or that person. We told them, 'Everybody needs to leave the area, these are the boundaries,' and anybody who didn't leave got arrested. And that's what happened to Brian. He didn't leave, and he was arrested."
No one needs to tell Hansen that. But as he waits to find out if this tale is near its conclusion or destined for additional chapters, he can't help but feel frustrated that the Denver dailies -- especially the News, whose parent company, E.W. Scripps, so recently feted him for his journalistic accomplishments -- haven't seen fit to write anything about his dilemma since the time of his arrest last year.
"If it had been a Post or a News reporter who'd been ordered off that mountain, they would have gone ballistic," he says. "They wouldn't have stood for it -- and yet they haven't printed a word about what's happening to me. But if I get convicted, it'll be just one more log that the government can throw on the fire to deny the media access in situations like the one I was in. That could hurt the news-gathering rights of all journalists -- and it would hurt the public, too."