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Stalking or Common Procedure? The Legal Challenges of News gathering

Legal challenges against reporters are very common in the United States, specifically accusations of stalking or strange behavior. In two recent cases, this has been used as an excuse to limit a reporter's accessibility to government buildings and important information. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is one tool that helps document and spread these violations of our basic constitutional rights. 


May 30, 2024

Author: Josh Kaminski 

Editor: Aydin Levy

Img source: New York Post

Washington D.C. - Throughout the last few years, the United States has witnessed an alarming number of journalists who found themselves in legal trouble in the midst of gathering information for a story. Gathering and obtaining information is a vital part of creating any news story, and many journalists attempt to glean important details  from government officials and key witnesses of an event. Without the practice of newsgathering, a journalist’s story would be much less credible and detailed, which would then make it less reliable and impactful. While this step in writing a story is arguably the most vital, it can also be the most difficult due to governments and individuals that refuse to give up information. Along with this, there have been many cases of journalists being legally challenged for allegedly stalking individuals or continuously bombarding them with emails. While some of these allegations are accurate, many of them were used to distract journalists from their work and distance them even further from accurate information. 

In October of 2023, journalist Hank Sanders from Calumet City, Illinois contacted politicians to get testimonies regarding the city's flooding issues and poorly managed storm water facilities. Sanders contacted the officials shortly after his story was published, hoping to get even more detail on the case for a later story, but he failed to find a willing participant. In response, Sanders was asked multiple times to stop emailing the officials, eventually causing many complaints to arise. According to The New York Times, the city's prosecutor, Patrick Walsh, was able to speak to Sanders about the issue and come to a mutual understanding, but Walsh was unable to stop the journalist from having to plead his case in court. The charges were quickly dropped, but many people, including executive editor of the Chicago Tribune Mitch Pugh, argued that the trial was unnecessary to begin with. Pugh thought it was a way to distract the reporter from doing his work, stating “It's clearly an attempt to intimidate and interfere with his reporting.” Later, it was revealed that the mayor was attempting to limit Sanders’ ability to contact government officials and enter city hall, which would hinder their ability to acquire correct and detailed information. 

In April of 2023, a similar case arose in Arizona. Camryn Sanchez, a reporter for The Capitol Times, was given a restraining order from state senator Wendy Rogers on the basis of stalking and persistent questioning. Sanchez was investigating to see if the senator lived in the city that she represented and visited both of her residences. The reporter’s interviews of Rogers’ neighbors were recorded by the senator’s house cameras. Rogers thought that Sanchez’s behavior was intimidating and strange, stating, “I don’t know what she is capable of.” After Rogers requested a restraining order, Judge Howard Grodman stated that while the reporter's behavior may have intimidated Rogers, it did not meet the criteria for true harassment and stalking. Many reporters and other law officials defended Sanchez, stating that she was just doing her job to collect accurate information. Capitol Times publisher Michael Gorman was one of her defenders, stating that this action against Sachez was intended to “silenc[e] the press in direct contravention of the First Amendment.” Along with these charges, Senator Rogers also attempted to bar Sanchez from entering the Arizona Senate Building, greatly restricting her access to many political leaders. 

Following both of these incidents, the legal officials, witnesses and reporters involved were happy to free themselves from the situations. Hank Sanders stated that “reporters don’t like being the center of stories,” and that now this was behind him, he could finally continue doing his work without restrictions or roadblocks. Throughout this case, prosecutor Patrick Walsh attempted to speedily end the litigation as he thought it was a waste of time. After the case between Sanchez and Rogers, journalist Tim Eigo put out a statement saying that Sanchez’s process of newsgathering was “done by hundreds of reporters every day on hundreds of stories,” and was not a criminal act, as Rogers suggested. As many of these statements suggested, the majority of these cases against reporters were an attempt to distract them from doing their jobs, which took away from the rights they were granted under the First Amendment. 

The freedom of the press is a crucial right in the First Amendment of the Constitution. It allows for the publication of media free from government control and enables one to speak on a government's wrongdoings without fear of prosecution. This amendment was rightfully cited within these legal battles, as the defendants used it to justify the fact that their actions were simply basic newsgathering practices rather than attempts to harm others or abuse their power. According to the Library of Congress, actual legal actions that are specifically aimed towards the press possibly violate the freedoms granted by the constitution. Former Justice Potter Stewart stated that this amendment necessitates  that governments give the press extra leeway so that it can perform effectively. 

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is a site managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) that documents any assaults, arrests, or other incidents in the United States that threaten the freedom of the Press. According to the FPF, the main mission of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is to “gather and disseminate information about the state of press freedom in our democracy so that an accurate record is created and the public is informed.” This site documented the cases of Sanchez and Sanders, along with the current threats to our press regarding the Palestinian Conflicts and protests. U.S. Citizens can use this website as a resource to advocate for their freedoms by donating, reporting incidents, reading about recent issues and spreading the information through social media.  

Both of these cases are prime examples of why the freedom of the press needs to be protected in the United States. Government officials and organizations may attempt to reduce the amount of press coverage or detailed information on specific issues by developing allegations of stalking and malpractice that stop journalists from being able to do their job. The First Amendment allows for this public access to information and transparency of governments. Therefore, any attempt to interfere in a reporter’s news gathering process should be considered unconstitutional unless the reporter is proven to have committed criminal acts. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is one tool that helps US citizens stay conscious about this issue, and nationwide awareness may help future reporters’ ability to safely and accurately obtain information. 

Deputy Director of Media Relations at Teens for Press Freedom, Aydin Levy, states that “The First Amendment should be upheld to everyone, including journalists. Sanders and Sanchez’s cases are prime examples of misusing/misunderstanding the Constitution so its application violates the rights of journalists. Using The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is a wonderful tool to educate oneself on how various rights are infringed and publicizing it in an attempt for change. ”




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