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Politicians, police and a principal torment reporters

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From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 51.

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 51.

From the U.S. Senate to upstate New York and south to Key West, Fla., journalists confronted varied obstacles on their beats. The need for additional space in the Senate almost cost journalists a place to work on Capitol Hill. A Buffalo public official has accused a journalist of stalking him. Public officials in Cleveland and New Jersey have blocked or slowed the release of information to news reporters.

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Press eviction renounced

Photographers and periodical print journalists almost lost their home of 54 years in the U.S. Senate Press Gallery, but the press corps caused such an uproar that the decision ultimately was renounced.

On June 29, journalists were surprised with an announcement that they would be evicted on July 2 from a space that had been the traditional home of the periodical press and photographers, across the hall from the larger press gallery for newspaper and television journalists. The magazine reporters and photographers were told they would have to find space in the already cramped main gallery. After an irate response by journalists, the date was delayed until August. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, journalists said they were never consulted.

The eviction was prompted by a shuffling of offices which was due to the need for additional space to situate the Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-at-Arms after the Democrats took control of the Senate in June, according to Democratic leaders.

Journalists, media representatives and the Senate Galleries’ executive committee members were not convinced by the reasoning of the leadership. They signed a joint letter of protest and demanded a meeting with Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd, as the administrator in charge of designating Senate office space, met with journalists to discuss their concerns and propose alternative solutions.

The eviction was eventually rescinded after Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) announced the retraction of the decision at a press conference on July 11.

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Reporter accused of stalking by phone

A New York freelance journalist faces his eleventh prosecution in the past four years after an incident with a Buffalo public official. Indicted for stalking, harassment and aggravated harassment, Richard Kern could face one year in jail.

Kern, 62, was alleged to have harassed Charles J. Flynn, chairman of the Erie County Independence Party and director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, with repeated phone calls, faxes and personal confrontations for about 14 months. Flynn claimed the harassment occurred at his work and home. Flynn also said his children were a subject of harassment.

Kern has a history with the state’s public officials. He has been prosecuted on 10 similar misdemeanor charges including burglary and harassment against other officials from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and a Buffalo Niagara District Council Member.

Kern has alleged in court documents that the public officials are “misusing their authority by using the law and the criminal justice system as an instrument of repression” against tough reporting.

The case against Kern was scheduled for a hearing in federal district court on Aug. 24.

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Mayor bars paper from press briefing

The mayor of Cleveland, upset by the coverage of city affairs by a local newspaper, excluded the paper from a news conference he held in a public school building on May 24.

Mayor Michael R. White frequently expressed distaste for The Plain Dealer’s critical coverage and then finally expelled it from a news conference to which other Cleveland media outlets were invited. The Plain Dealer made several attempts to attend but reporters were told the news conference was by invitation only. White’s office stated that public schools are not open to the public during the course of a school day when the “private” event took place.

The mayor understands that public officials are open to scrutiny, but alleges that the coverage of The Plain Dealer has “exhibited on numerous occasions unfair and biased coverage of his administration,” said Brian Rothenberg, White’s spokesman.

The Plain Dealer has written a letter to White expressing concerns regarding the actions taken at the public school. The newspaper has considered filing a complaint but no action has been taken, said Tom O’Hara, managing editor.

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Police chief delays information requests

The state attorney general is reviewing the actions of the Hackensack, N.J., police chief after he announced on May 14 that he will delay the release of police reports to a local newspaper.

Chief Charles Zisa said The (Bergen) Record published unfavorable and biased stories about him and his brother, John Zisa, who is the mayor of Hackensack. Charles Zisa disapproved of the coverage of a non-partisan city council election in which his brother was re-elected.

Withholding information in retaliation may violate Executive Order 69, which supports access to public records, a spokeswoman for the state division of criminal justice told The Record. Charles Zisa argued he abided by the law, which provides police with a 24-hour window before they must release crime information. The statute also directs that information be released “sooner if practicable.”

Questioning a principal leads to arrest

A reporter’s interview with a Virginia school principal about a class biology project erupted into a melodramatic squabble and a trespassing charge on June 6 that was eventually dropped.

After several failed attempts to contact school administration for an interview, Manassas Journal Messenger reporter Kelly Campbell said she visited Woodbridge High School with the consent of a receptionist. Campbell was then invited into the school principal’s office, where, after a brief discussion of the story, principal Karen Spillman told the reporter to leave.

Spillman then asked a police officer assigned to the school to remove Campbell from campus because she allegedly refused to leave. Campbell said that she did not object to leaving, but before she could leave on her own the officer took her by the arm and arrested her. Campbell said she was handcuffed and taken to a police substation where she was detained for two hours and charged with trespassing.

Campbell planned to interview Spillman about a biology program that involved an “imprinting” experiment, during which students had ducklings follow them as if they were the mother duck. There have been apparent concerns in the community and among wildlife conservation officials regarding the validity and organization of the project.

School Superintendent Edward I. Kelly suggested that the charges against Campbell should be dropped, but no action was formally taken by the school district. The charges were later dropped by the Prince William County prosecutor.

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Publisher faces criminal charges over report on police investigation

A criminal law that has been deemed unconstitutional in a number of courts has nevertheless been used to charge the publisher of newspaper in Key West, Fla., with a misdemeanor.

Dennis Cooper, the editor and publisher of Key West the Newspaper, was arrested after publishing information about an internal police investigation on June 15 and 22. The state eventually dropped the charges.

Cooper’s arrest was prompted by the publication of a series of articles that alleged the police mishandled an investigation within the department. After a citizen, who was the subject of an investigation, questioned the conduct of the police department, Cooper himself filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which began an internal investigation.

After Cooper published articles about the investigation, he was arrested by Key West police. Police claimed that Cooper violated a state law that prohibits anyone, including the person who filed the complaint, from divulging information regarding an internal police investigation before it is entered as a public record.

The validity of the current statute, however, was questionable, said attorney James Green, former legal director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union.

“The law has been declared by two other judges to be unconstitutional,” Green said. “I also think it would be safe to say there have been five different gag rules [issued under the law] that have been declared unconstitutional by five separate judges.”

The arrest warrant also stated that the series of articles Cooper published included sensitive information that could potentially jeopardize the investigation.

Michael Barnes, Cooper’s attorney, said his client did not divulge confidential information.

“Dennis Cooper did not disclose internal investigative information,” Barnes said. “He only published information that he retrieved from his own investigative reporting as a journalist.”

The Key West Police Department did not return calls for comment. — EU