As a reporter for Great 98 in Mayville, Wisconsin, Alex Crowe found himself digging into allegations of corruption and special treatment in the city’s police department. His work looked into a Department of Justice investigation that revealed the department helped cover up a drug-related offense at the request of an officer. Tom Poellot, the officer accused of trying to cover for his son, denied that he was involved in any alterations to that police report, even though that information was included in a criminal complaint filed against former Mayville Police Chief Christopher MacNeill.
Crowe’s efforts garnered a lot of attention for the station’s news operation and earned him a first-place award from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in the category of Best Significant Community Impact in 2017.
A year or so later, everything went to hell in a speedboat.
Poellot’s lawyer contacted the station and demanded the station pull down the articles, claiming Crowe broke the law in his reporting.
“He claims we violated Wisconsin Statutes Section 938.396(1)(b)(1) which says you cannot identify a minor involved in a crime,” Crowe wrote in an email. “I wrote that Poellot’s son had been caught at school, but never identified the kid. All word-for-word form DOJ criminal complaint against MacNeill.”
Crowe said the attorney had been extremely aggressive in his approach and Crowe’s superiors at the station were concerned enough to consider pulling the stories off line and scrubbing them from all social media. The costs associated with a protracted legal fight were also potentially prohibitive, Crowe was told.
To better understand the legal issues associated with his stories, Crowe contacted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group that “provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.”
“I sent an email late one night, and received a call back literally minutes later from a lawyer in D.C. who was furious with the way we were being treated,” Crowe wrote. “She put me in contact with a lawyer in Madison who works with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as well as the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. He was able to cite specific Wisconsin State Statutes that provide protections for the press, as well as refute the chief/lawyer’s claims that we were in violation of a different set of statutes. We told the other side that we had been in contact with multiple lawyers who helped us put together a response, and have not heard back from the lawyer representing the chief in Cudahy for weeks. Hopefully, the matter has been resolved.”
(The stories are still available on the Great 98 website here and here and you, so feel free to read them. They’re truly great bits of quality local journalism. If you want to hear what Crowe said about them for this blog when they first came out, you can click here and here.)
I asked Crowe what he learned from this experience and he had a few tips. Below are some of his thoughts (in quotes) and three things I think you can take away from this experience:
Pair intuition and research before you respond.
When I worked as a journalist, a student newspaper adviser, and even as a professor, I would hear about ridiculously absurd statements people would make about the intersection of law and the media. Stuff like:
- “You can’t publish the name of a criminal because the person could sue us.”
- “We don’t have to release that document (to the media) because we don’t feel you are entitled to it.”
- “We know we released that document, but we sent you the wrong one and we’re relying on your ethical integrity as a journalist to destroy it and let us send you a new one.”
- “You published my son’s name in the paper! I’m suing you for making him look bad.” (The “son” had been arrested after participating in a violent, public altercation. I imagine THAT might have made him look bad, but what do I know?)
My favorite one was a response to an open records request in which we were denied access to a set of evaluations that a search committee had inadvertently made public. The responding records keeper stated that the documents were available under some arcane part of Indiana law in which they weren’t public, but rather more like interoffice memos meant to be shared only among about 30,000 students, faculty and staff on the campus. Just not for publication in the student newspaper, with its circulation of about 10,000.
When it came to Crowe’s situation, it felt like bullying to me. The use of a lawyer and a specific state statute can scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t a legal expert. The phrase, “Do X or we’re going to sue you” coming from a lawyer can make you want to cower in a corner and say, “Please don’t hurt me!” Instead, find your own ringer in this game and see what he or she can do to balance the playing field.
Whenever someone threatens to sue you or withholds a document from you or does anything else like that, take a few moments and start processing what you have heard in a logical fashion. Once you do this a few times (and take a decent com law class), you can develop a pretty good BS detector. Let intuition guide you, and then do some research, call some experts and figure out how accurate this information actually is.
“I would encourage any student to read up on the laws/statutes in their state that regard to reporting and publishing of information, because we really needed to know what the law said and who it protected before crafting a response,” Crowe said.
The more you know, the better off you are.
You’re not in this alone. Use your network to find help.
When Crowe first was told he would have to take down the stories, he reached out to me and I helped direct him to the RCFP. How did I know to do this? I didn’t, so I asked a couple of the legal eagles I knew, who had seen this kind of thing before and they pointed me toward that group.
When we talk about “networking” in college classes, this is the kind of thing we’re trying to get across. People you meet and connect with can help you. If those people don’t have the answers, chances are pretty good they’ll know someone who does have the answers.
“I would HIGHLY encourage students to get informed about resources available to them, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Crowe said. “If I wasn’t able to get professional assistance from that organization, I would have been forced to pull the story and it would have been erased from online archives as well.”
For students, the Student Press Law Center is a great resource and the folks there can help with free legal advice when your attempt to do journalism runs into someone else’s desire for you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing.
The ability to say, “Oh, you think you’re going to back me into a corner? That’s not going to happen because I have a lawyer, too” must feel so good. I know it’s probably nothing like this, but I always loved this line from Andrew Garfield in “The Social Network.”
Figure out if this is the hill you are willing to die on and if the juice is worth the squeeze. Then act accordingly.
I just managed to merge two of my favorite Filak-isms into one subhead, so it’s a good day for me. The point is that you need to figure out if it’s worth it to fight back and how far you are willing to go to defend that position. In some cases, the ask is minimal and the degree to which they are a pain in your keester is maximum, so you do it, even though you could stand your ground on an issue.
In this case, however, Crowe saw a much bigger picture and a much more important issue:
“Honestly, it was mostly about the principle of the matter,” Crowe stated. “We did absolutely nothing wrong in our reporting, yet here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage that he doesn’t like while hiding behind his son as a means to try and get the story taken down. I didn’t like the fact that I was being asked to take my very legitimate reporting down just because the subject didn’t like what was written.
“We took our information directly from the DOJ/DCI report, along with other pillars of good reporting (including) interviews and in-person courtroom coverage…” he added. “It was important to keep the work published because, in my mind, if we have to take one story down after a bogus legal threat, that just opens the door for others to follow suit.”
The idea of opening Pandora’s Box or creating a “slippery slope” can occasionally be much ado about nothing. In this case, however, if he backed down, he might have found himself having to back off repeatedly, as his station would have established a problematic precedent: If we punch you hard enough in the nose (legally speaking), you will hide important news we don’t want people to see.
“I’ve learned that there are people who will do whatever it takes to try and get negative coverage erased from the internet,” he said. “This went way beyond someone trying to scrub their image. This is the first time I have had someone really come after me personally for something I reported on, and no matter how legit the reporting was, the lawyers kept coming.”
When you face a situation like this, you’ll be put to the test and you’ll need to determine how far you are willing to go to do what you think is right. Then, you’ll have to be willing to deal with the fall out. In either case, you’ll need to know that you can live with yourself after you make that choice and take your stand.
You might not win every time, but you’ll sleep better at night.