When people think about attacks on the free press in the United States, they are almost never thinking about their own local community.
But for Richmond County, North Carolina, the free speech battle just hit their local paper.
North Carolina Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell noticed Richmond County Daily Journal reporter Matthew Sasser using a tape recorder during a murder trial to capture audio from the courtroom to report on, and was asked by the judge to remove the device, according to the Associated Press.
Simple enough. Sasser broke the judge’s rules and could seemingly come back without consequences afterward if he did not have the recorder.
Except the situation quickly takes an incredibly dark and bizarre turn.
The court bailiff directs the reporter to come back to the courthouse, so he brings his editor, Gavin Stone, with him.
Naturally, Futrell pauses the murder trial to hold both Sasser and Stone in contempt of court.
He then goes on to fine Sasser $500 and sentence Stone to five days in jail, a nonsensical punishment for something Stone did not do.
“The penalty does not fit the crime,” the journal’s publisher Brian Bloom told the AP.
“Let’s put this in perspective: You stop a murder trial not once, but twice, because a guy had a tape recorder sitting next to him on a bench at a courtroom. Let’s put our priorities in place here.”
Bloom was able to get his editor out of jail after spending the night behind bars, but Stone he could still go back if an appeals court does not dismiss the case.
Let’s remember that this whole debacle started over a recording device, which Sasser did not even seem to push back on removing it.
This was precious time wasted away from the murder trial over a reporter trying to do his job, and it is honestly quite embarrassing.
“It’s a little disturbing when a judge starts contempt proceedings over the use of an unobtrusive, quiet, pocket-sized device that a reporter uses to do their job in a courtroom,” Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University said, according to the AP.
Futrell, whether he realized it at the time or not, drew a ton of attention away from the murder trial (which should be the major story here) and onto a case that is trivial.
The situation goes to show that even though Sasser broke the rules, sometimes the punishment does not always fit the crime.
Stone should have never spent a single second behind bars, and it would be a disgrace to the justice system and free speech if he is ordered to return.
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