Wednesday, 07 July 2021 19:02

AP: Richmond County Daily Journal appealing contempt charges

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Richmond County Daily Journal News Editor Gavin Stone covers a story in 2020. Richmond County Daily Journal News Editor Gavin Stone covers a story in 2020. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County’s print newspaper is appealing contempt charges against two of its journalists.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Richmond County Daily Journal Publisher Brian Bloom hired an attorney to file an appeal the day after Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell jailed News Editor Gavin Stone and fined reporter Matthew Sasser on June 22 for contempt after Sasser reportedly brought a recording device into a courtroom while covering a murder trial.

An administrative order prohibits, in part, cellphones, cameras and other electronic devices and has been in place

According to the AP, Sasser left the Richmond County Judicial Center after Futrell ordered him to remove the device from the courtroom and returned to the newsroom — but he was called back to court by a bailiff and was joined by Stone.

Stone told the AP he was “blown away” by how fast the contempt proceeding happened.

Both Stone and Sasser have declined to comment on the situation, even off the record.

While Bloom said Sasser shouldn’t have had the recorder, he disagrees with Stone being jailed for something someone else did, the AP reports.

“The penalty does not fit the crime,” 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.”

According to court documents, Stone received a warning letter from Chief District Court Judge Amanda Wilson in January of 2020 after she noticed a photo published in the paper that was taken without permission.

Futrell initially sentenced Stone to five days in the Richmond County Jail, but records show the stay was cut short as he was released around 4:50 p.m. the day after he was booked. Sasser was slapped with a $500 fine that was supposed to be paid that day.

The AP reports that the judge struck those penalties and will let an appeals court decide. According to statute, they could face censure, up to 30 days behind bars or a $500 fine — or a combination of the three.

Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, told the AP that it was “disturbing” that a judge would start contempt proceedings over a tool a journalist was using to do his job.

Rule 15 of the N.C. General Rules of Practice for Superior and District Courts states that electronic coverage is allowed, but gives the presiding judge discretion to say no.

Durham attorney Jonathan Jones, who formerly headed the Open Government Coalition, told the AP that he believes a court will find Stone was unduly punished since it was Sasser who had the recorder.

RO Managing Editor William R. Toler wrote a column following Stone’s arrest supporting the journalists and bashing the administrative order and the general court rules.

“It seems pointless for Rule 15 to say that ‘Electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings shall be allowed in the appellate and trial courts of this state …,’ but in the first condition give judges the authority to say no on a whim,” Toler wrote.

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

Columnist and former Daily Journal editor Corey Friedman also weighed in on the case, posting the RO's original story to his own social media pages. Friedman was editor of the Daily Journal from May 2014 to late April 2016. He is currently editor of the Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia.

“This severe abuse of discretion chills press freedom in Richmond County and beyond,” Friedman said. “(N.C. Supreme Court) Chief Justice (Paul) Newby should rein in this nonsense.”







Last modified on Wednesday, 07 July 2021 19:16