Wednesday, 23 June 2021 15:30

Richmond County Superior Court judge jails editor, fines reporter for contempt

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Richmond County Daily Journal News Editor Gavin Stone was given a five-day jail sentence Tuesday after being found in contempt of an administrative order by Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell. Richmond County Daily Journal News Editor Gavin Stone was given a five-day jail sentence Tuesday after being found in contempt of an administrative order by Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell.

ROCKINGHAM —  Two local journalists have been charged with contempt of court for reportedly violating a standing judicial order barring recording devices.


Clyde Spencer Gavin Stone, news editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal, was booked into the Richmond County Jail at 5:52 p.m. Tuesday on a charge of criminal contempt.

According to court documents made available Wednesday afternoon, Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan R. Futrell found Stone in contempt for violating an order dated Aug. 15, 2019 that, in part, bans cellphones, cameras and other recording devices.

Futrell cites a January 2020 letter from Chief District Court Judge Amanda Wilson to Stone regarding a photo that appeared in the Jan. 2, 2020 edition of the Daily Journal.

In the letter, Wilson tells Stone that the photo was credited to him in the paper and was taken at an angle “consistent with your location during the time of the proceedings depicted in the photograph.”

Wilson goes on to say that whoever took the photograph was in violation of the order signed by her and Futrell, which was identical to one signed by previous judges Tanya Wallace and Scott Brewer.

“Enlarged versions of both the current and previous orders are (or were) prominently displayed at the front foyer of the Judicial Center,” Wilson said, adding that they were also on display at other courthouses in District 16A and that there “is no valid excuse for not having seen them.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, no orders were on display in the courthouse from the front door to the Clerk of Superior Court’s office. However, a white marker board in the entryway warns those walking in to not bring cellphones — twice. There are also pictorial no-cellphone and no-gun signs on the wall, as well as a sign barring cellphones on the front door. The RO obtained two print copies from a bailiff on Wednesday.

“I have conferred with Judge Futrell and ascertained that neither he nor I gave you permission to bring your cellphone, camera or any other recording device into the courthouse or any courtroom inside the courthouse,” Wilson said. “For that matter, neither Judge Futrell nor I have given such permission to any other representative of any other media (print or broadcast).”

Wilson added that it is “undisputed” that the photograph was taken “in clear violation” of the order and that there was no excuse for violating “those clear, unambiguous, and well-known policies that have long been in place.”

She warned Stone that anyone who violates the policies could be held in contempt.

Wilson continues, saying that Stone is bound to obey the order “as much as any other person.”

“In fact, given that you apparently knowingly violated that order, I will have to insist on strict adherence to its terms … No permission that any other person allegedly provided to you shall excuse or authorize you to act contrarily to the order.”

She concludes saying that she would be “happy” to discuss the matter, adding that while she enjoys her relationship with Stone and other local media representatives, “I have an obligation to protect all persons entering the courthouse and participating in judicial proceedings before me.”

“Misuse of recording devices has disrupted judicial proceedings in other jurisdictions and our citizens are entitled to the utmost efforts to protect their safety and privacy to the greatest extent possible,” Wilson said. “Providing them with that protection requires that all citizens obey the unambiguous, clearly published orders of the court.”

Wilson again encouraged Stone to contact her regarding the issue and said “I appreciate the work that you do and the challenges that small town newspapers face.”

Flash forward to June 22, when reporter Matthew Sasser violated the order “by bringing into the courtroom and recording proceedings on June 22 and 23, 2021,” according to court documents. The documents do not specify what type of device was used.

(Note: June 23 was the day after the contempt order was issued.)

Sasser was ordered to pay a $500 fine by June 23. 

Stone, 28, was given five days in jail.

Stone has been with the Daily Journal since August of 2017. Sasser was hired within the past year, according to the paper.

(Disclosure: This writer hired Stone in his previous employment as editor of the Daily Journal, and was terminated from that position in July of 2018.)

Richmond County is not alone in banning such devices from the courthouse.

Cabarrus County initiated a similar order in 2018.

In Mecklenburg County, the media must fill out an application to use recording equipment.

Alamance County also has a similar order banning cellphones, but makes exceptions for employees of the court — including those in the clerk of superior court’s office, district attorney’s office and judges’ offices — law enforcement officers and government officials conducting business.

Richmond County’s order authorizes no exemptions, though officers of the court have been observed with phones.

Daily Journal Publisher Brian Bloom could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Richmond County Daily Journal was purchased by Champion Media in 2017. Champion also owns the Anson Record, Laurinburg Exchange, Robesonian, Bladen Journal and Sampson Independent, as well as newspapers in South Carolina and the Midwest.

When asked if the longtime print publication had a case, Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University said, “Unfortunately, no.”

“Judges have tremendous latitude in governing courtrooms and there’s never a defense for defying a court order,” said Paulson. “You’re expected to challenge the order in court.”

Superior and District Courts Rule 15, which gives guidance on the use of cameras and other recording and electronic devices in courtrooms, says, “Electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings shall be allowed in the appellate and trial courts of this state,” but is subject to several conditions.

The first condition states: “The presiding justice or judge shall at all times have authority to prohibit or terminate electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings, in the courtroom or the corridors immediately adjacent thereto.”

Other conditions include the types of proceedings and witnesses that can’t be covered electronically and prohibits electronic coverage of jurors.

The remainder of the rule outlines the setting up of cameras and other equipment for pool coverage.

The RO could find no rules pertaining to a blanket ban on cameras or recording devices in the courthouse.