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On Feb. 12, the charge of "unlawful entry" brought against me was dismissed without condition. The U.S. Attorney dropped the case, finding it baseless and without merit. Although this is a personal victory and I am very grateful and relieved at the U.S. Attorney's decision, it serves as a painful reminder that we do not have rights unless we exercise them.
On Feb. 1, I was arrested, briefly jailed, and charged with "unlawful entry" for attempting to film a public hearing in the Science, Space and Technology committee. I did not enter unlawfully, I lined up outside just as everyone else did and walked in when the room opened. I set up my tripod and camera where cameras normally are set up in that particular hearing room and I was calm and peaceful. I did not disrupt the hearing nor did I intend to do so. I believed I was within my first amendment rights, as a journalist and filmmaker. I was reporting on a case that is intensely personal to me, that I have been following for 3 years.
The House had convened a hearing in the House Energy and Environment subcommittee to challenge EPAs findings that hydraulic fracturing fluids had contaminated groundwater in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. I have a long history with the town of Pavillion and its residents who have maintained since 2008 that fracking has contaminated their water supply. I featured the stories of residents John Fenton, Louis Meeks and Jeff Locker in GASLAND and I have continued to document the catastrophic water contamination in Pavillion for the upcoming sequel GASLAND 2. It was clear that Republican leadership, including Chairman Andy Harris of Maryland, who ordered my arrest, was using this hearing to attack the three year Region 8 EPA investigation involving hundreds of samples and extensive water testing which ruled that Pavillion’s groundwater was a health hazard, contaminated by benzene at 50x the safe level and numerous other contaminants associated with gas drilling. Most importantly, EPA stated in this case that fracking was the likely cause.
When I was being led out of Congress in handcuffs, Representative Paul Tonko, Democracy of New York shouted out "This is the People's House!" in disgust. Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina, moved to suspend the rules so that we could continue to film the proceedings stating "All god's children should be allowed to film this hearing!" It was a surreal moment. Later that day, Congressman Maurice Hinchey would write, "This is blatant censorship and a shameful stain on this Congress."
But if it is not now the "People's House," it is now, more than ever the "people's media." I was able to watch my own arrest on YouTube because members of the audience filmed it and posted their videos. It was the citizen journalism that first documented people lighting their water on fire in gas fracking areas. It was citizen journalism that posted videos of the recent mass arrest of peaceful protestors in New York and in California. The people's media is our system of accountability and transparency and we must continue to practice it.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly “Congress shall make no law…that infringes on the Freedom of the Press." Which means that no subcommittee rule or regulation should prohibit a respectful journalist or citizen from recording a public hearing.
I have huge respect for those who make the immense personal sacrifice to do public service and represent their constituents and the American people. I believe we elect our representatives with good will and trust and the hopes that they serve us honestly and respectfully and I believe that we, as citizens, send them to Congress with love, pride and well wishes for the future of the nation. However, I have no respect for or deference to those who would misuse the power granted them by the American people to upend the institutions of democratic government and the rights of the citizenship they have been sworn to uphold for private gain, political leverage or because they are beholden to corporate influence or corrosive ideology.
The people of Pavillion deserve better. The thousands across the U.S. who have documented cases of water contamination in fracking areas deserve their own hearing on Capitol Hill. They deserve the chance to testify before Congress. The truth that fracking contaminates groundwater is out, and no amount of intimidation tactics—either outright challenges to science or the arrest of journalists—will put the genie back in the bottle. Such a brazen attempt to discredit and silence the EPA, the citizens of Pavillion and documentary filmmaking will ultimately fail and it is an affront to the health and integrity of Americans.
We cannot take our democracy and the rights of our citizenship for granted. Democracy is not handed to us from on high or guaranteed to us by battles fought by our ancestors. It is perpetually under siege by those with power, money and influence who would rather our nation of laws becomes a nation of affiliation. It is clear to me that I was arrested to serve the interests of oil and gas companies, whose interests often run counter to those of ordinary American citizens.
I was arrested because I refused to turn off my camera at a public hearing in the U.S. congress. I have filmed hundreds of public hearings around the country and the first amendment guarantees my ability to report on what happens in public.
And I continue to refuse. I refuse to let Congressmen blatantly attack science in the the Science committee without the light of the media shining out their transgressions. I refuse to be silenced and not report on the misdeeds of those representatives who are clearly influenced by oil and gas companies beyond loyalty to their own citizen's health. I refuse to stand down and let oil and gas companies lie about what they are injecting into the ground and emitting into the air. I refuse to let the Bill of Rights collapse under the weight of a 250 million dollar lobbying campaign. I refuse to let money, power and influence define the next American century over the will of the people. I refuse to turn of my camera and sit idly by as huge areas in 34 states become sacrificial drilling zones. I refuse to turn my back on the good and great people that have entrusted me with their stories of oil and gas contamination and walk away from the fight they have inspired me to wage on their behalf. I refuse to let the oil and gas industry bury their cancerous secrets for us to unwittingly drink. I refuse to bow and walk out of congress leaving it to the influence of those with money to peddle in its halls. I refuse to relinquish my understanding of the law and of justice. I refuse to surrender my citizenship and my dignity, head bowed in submission, to the influence of corporate power. I refuse to forsake the American dream of the many for the financial gain of the nationless few. I refuse to walk away, from my home and my country.
The fact that my case was dismissed so readily only attests to the ridiculousness and unfairness of my arrest, the U.S. attorney has refused to pursue it.
I woke up one morning and declared myself a journalist. I had to. My home was under siege by the gas fracking industry. I felt that I had to not only seek out the true effects of the largest natural gas drilling campaign in history on public health and the environment but also to report what I found to my community.
The first amendment states that anyone can do the same. Anyone can wake up in the morning, declare themselves a journalist and enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. In the era of instant media, YouTube and social networks, this becomes even more relevant and exciting; anyone with an iPhone can rock the world. It was citizen journalists who first posted police pepper spraying peaceful protestors in New York and California and it was citizen distribution that virally spread those horrific videos of police brutality until the whole world was infected with the truth of what is happening in the USA today. It was citizen journalists who first documented water catching on fire at the kitchen sink as a result of gas fracking. It was citizen journalists who woke up one morning and decided to show the water contamination and air pollution due to gas drilling in Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and in states across the nation.
This year we have seen severe repression of journalism in America. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested this year simply trying to do their jobs. Whether they were covering oil and gas issues or issues of economic inequality during the Occupy demonstrations.
"Recently, Reporters Without Borders released its 2011–2012 global Press Freedom Index. Due to journalist arrests and press suppression at Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests, the United States has dropped significantly in the rankings of press freedom, from 27 to 47," Truthout reports.
Having personally witnessed the outrageous police brutality and repression which was an unwarranted response to occupy protests and to citizens who were acting in defense of their towns and neighborhoods against gas fracking and other egregious human rights violations as the result of fossil fuel development, I feel it is necessary to stand with all of those who have had enough of inequality and enough of big business having undue influence over the government.
So please accept my invitation, and the First Amendment's authorization, to declare yourself a member of the Press. Declare yourself a witness to history and a fighter for transparency and equality under the law. And if you feel like it, go film a congressional hearing. Don't bother to ask for permission, permission was just granted to you by the U.S. Attorney. You don't need credentials, you have your rights. Assert them.
p.s. I am very thankful to Reporters Without Borders, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Independent Documentary Association and to the 30,000 people who signed the Working Families Party petition on my behalf and to all of my supporters for your help, well wishes, and statements of outrage and strength. I am also very grateful to all of the reporters, news outlets and journalists who reported on this travesty.