from the lose-my-number(s) dept
In a small county in Oregon, free speech — specifically the act of journalism — is being threatened. The Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper, has been investigating a state lawmaker’s ties to business deals and contracts being executed in the county. Doing what journalists do, the paper’s reporters have been trying to get answers or statements from people working with State Rep. Greg Smith, whose business dealings are currently under the small paper’s microscope.
No one seems to want to talk to the paper, but good journalists are persistent and willing to talk to anyone who might give them a new lead or verify findings. This is how journalism works. Rep. Greg Smith thinks journalism is a criminal act.
The newspaper broke the news Monday morning after learning that Malheur County’s legal counsel had asked the sheriff to investigate whether reporters’ persistent attempts to contact officials, sometimes after business hours or using their personal email accounts, amounted to a violation of the law.
State Rep. Greg Smith, the Republican lawmaker at the center of the journalists’ investigation and who also serves as director of Malheur County Economic Development on a contract basis, complained to the newspaper: “It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” and asked “to not have our employees contacted outside of their work place,” the paper reported.
Smith has taken his “evidence” to local law enforcement. Apparently, Smith believes email from journalists to people’s personal email addresses (“at all times!”) is a form of harassment. The state statute is written broadly enough that someone — say, State Rep. Greg Smith — might feel like they’ve got an open-and-shut case. The state’s harassment law says a crime is committed if anyone “intentionally harasses or annoys another person” via lines of communication (phones, email addresses) they’ve been “forbidden” to use.
That explains Smith’s statement to the newspaper. He did the forbidding. Now he’s just cashing in his criminal charge chips. The next step is to get law enforcement on board. Achievement unlocked.
After initial publication of this report online, Rich Harriman, a commander in the sheriff’s office, posted a personal Facebook comment justifying action by police.
“Asking to explore if criminal activity is afoot is NOT suppressing the press,” Harriman wrote. “If they did something wrong, it keeps them from crossing that line again. Seems like this paper and its groupies might be desperate for a sexy story.”
So much for objectivity. The message has been sent: these government employees — one a law enforcement official — want nosy journalists to mind their own business. Any official can claim a phone line is off limits to get the ball rolling on bogus, First Amendment-damaging charges. The problem with Rep. Smith doing it is he already gave constituents permission to call him anytime.
Smith uses two emails in his conduct of county business. At a government meeting last fall, he gave the public what he described as his “personal” cell phone number He told the audience: “At any time that anyone has any questions or concerns, please call me directly.” He said he was available “24/7.”
He has listed that number on press releases from Malheur County and in his role as a state legislator.
I guess this line is only open to non-journalists. The Malheur Enterprise has plenty of “questions and concerns.” Rep. Smith has no desire to address them. The best way to shut people up is to threaten their freedom.
Fortunately, Smith doesn’t have the support of everyone in the Sheriff’s office. This bullshit investigation appears to have reached the end of the line.
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said Wednesday an inquiry determined no laws had been broken.
“As an elected sheriff, we will always respect the constitutional rights of anybody and everybody. We do believe in freedom of the press and free speech that we believe are our rights given by the Constitution of the United States,” Wolfe said.
Sheriff Wolfe might want to have a word with Commander Harriman and remind him he speaks for the office when he pipes up on Facebook with ill-advised comments that display his ignorance of the First Amendment and its protections.
If Rep. Smith doesn’t like being dogged by journalists, he’s in the wrong business. Being a public servant — even part-time — means being annoyed by the public, journalists included, on a regular basis. Hopefully, his career as a public servant is just about over. Going after the press with criminal charges is about the worst move a politician can make.