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Reporter charged for failure to notify fire officials of spill

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  1. Newsgathering
From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 15.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 15.

When a diesel tanker inadvertently spilled hundreds of gallons of fuel near the Deseret News office building earlier this year, staff writer Jerry Spangler immediately got to work preparing a story for the newspaper.

Unbeknownst to him, however, Spangler failed to meet his responsibility as a citizen, at least according to Salt Lake City prosecutors who later handed him a criminal charge of failing to notify authorities about the spill.

The spill occurred Jan. 3 when nearly 400 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the basement of the Deseret News building. The fuel was mistakenly delivered to the Deseret News instead of the neighboring Newspaper Agency Corp., the corporation that handles the joint operating agreement between the News and The Salt Lake Tribune. The fuel overflowed because the Deseret News‘ storage tank was already full.

Spangler wrote a story about a diesel fuel spill at the newspaper’s office building after contacting several sources, including the fire department, for comments on how the spill was handled.

Spangler’s sources told him that he should call the fire department and report the spill. Spangler, however, contacted the sources as a journalist asking questions instead of as an informant directly notifying authorities about the spill.

City prosecutors charged Spangler on Feb. 7 under the “harassing discharges” law, a misdemeanor violation, for not reporting the spill directly to the fire department. Spangler said he was unaware of the charges until April 2.

Spangler’s attorney Jeff Hunt said the harassing discharges law is intended to apply to an individual or entity that has authority or responsibility over the area where the spill occurred. Prosecutors did not charge the newspaper or its building managers, the diesel fuel supplier who caused the spill or the firm that cleaned up the spill.

Spangler said it is not his responsibility to notify government authorities when something unlawful occurs.

“My role is to gather information and report it,” Spangler said. “When I become a participant in the story I’m reporting on, that turns me into a tool of law enforcement, and that is not my role.”

Spangler did tell newspaper authorities about the reporting requirement, though, according to his attorney.

But Salt Lake City Prosecutor Simarjit Gill said in an April 6 Salt Lake Tribune article that he is looking at Spangler not as a reporter but as a person who was told to contact the fire department and did not, and, therefore, broke the law.

Gill did not return phone calls from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The fire department was notified of the spill on Jan. 4, almost 24 hours after the spill and determined the situation was not hazardous. The city’s health and public works departments, along with an environmental cleanup crew, contained the spill the day before.

Hunt said the charges against Spangler could set a dangerous precedent against journalists, inhibiting their freedom to report on unlawful activity without becoming a participant in the story and notifying authorities.

“These charges are impermissible under the First Amendment, which protects newsgathering,” Hunt said. — KG