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Are Photojournalist's Felony Charges Putting Free Speech on Trial?

More than 200 people, including half a dozen journalists, were penned in and arrested during the Inauguration Day protests in Washington, D.C. (Anthony Crider/Flickr)
More than 200 people, including half a dozen journalists, were penned in and arrested during the Inauguration Day protests in Washington, D.C. (Anthony Crider/Flickr)
November 17, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. – Press groups and Alexei Wood himself say there are troubling implications to the photojournalist's trial for multiple felonies. Wood stands charged with six felonies and two misdemeanors in a D.C. superior court.

He says the video he shot of rioting during President Donald Trump's inauguration show he did nothing wrong - but prosecutors are accusing him of rioting just for being there.

Wood says that should be troubling to reporters and anyone who believes in a free and aggressive press.

"I'm following resistance movements," he says. "That is my beat, and I'm really good at it, and that's an absolutely legitimate beat. And it's being criminalized."

Wood faces up to 60 years in prison. Prosecutors say he conspired with the rioters and therefore also is to blame for the attacks on police and property destruction committed by others in the group, even if he did not do those things himself.

More than 200 people, including half a dozen journalists, were penned in and arrested during the January 20 protests, which were largely peaceful otherwise. All the other journalists and many of the protesters have seen their charges dropped or reduced to misdemeanors.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says it's not at all clear why Wood still is in jeopardy. He says this kind of guilt by association is dangerous.

"If you're participating in a march and one person does something illegal and they tie that to all 200 people, that's a truly troubling trend," Leslie warns.

Wood also is a new kind of journalist - one delivering raw video to the public, without going through a regular news organization. But while Wood says the prosecutors accuse him of "advertising anarchy," he feels what he does is the truest form of a free press.

"If people want to critique my professionalism, I've got no qualms with that," he adds. "And I live-streamed it and it's out there for the entire world to come to their own conclusions."

Wood estimates his trial may take another two weeks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 31 have been arrested while doing their jobs in the U.S. this year.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND