County officials in Oregon threatened to investigate their local newspaper’s reporters for a basic part of journalism — making phone calls and sending emails — which the officials claimed may constitute “telephonic harassment.”
The Malheur Enterprise reported Monday that officials in Malheur County asked county Sheriff Brian Wolfe to open a criminal investigation into the paper’s reporting. They claimed the paper’s reporters may have committed crimes by making phone calls and sending emails “after hours,” and reportedly took issue with journalists contacting personal email addresses and phone numbers.
The threat likely stemmed from the paper’s recent investigative reporting on Greg Smith, a Republican state legislator who also serves as director of the county’s economic development office, and business deals that might present a conflict of interest, the Enterprise reported.
In a press release last week, Smith accused the newspaper of making “endless phone calls, hostile emails at all hours of the day and unwelcome office visits,” claiming that the paper has an “obsession with” and a “months-long vendetta against our office.”
County counsel Stephanie Williams confirmed to the paper that she contacted Wolfe about the investigation. The sheriff told the paper he was considering whether to move forward with the probe.
On Wednesday, Wolfe said that he was dropping the matter, telling HuffPost that he conducted a “quick inquiry” into the “unwanted contact,” and found “no evidence of any criminal activity.”
Neither Smith nor Williams responded to multiple requests for comment from HuffPost on Tuesday.
The Enterprise reported that Wolfe cited an Oregon state law on “telephonic harassment,” defined as “if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by calling or sending text messages, voice mails or other messages, “knowing that the caller has been forbidden from so doing by a person exercising lawful authority over the receiving telephone.”
The paper’s editor and publisher, Les Zaitz, said the threat of an investigation was “an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise.”
“Our news staff has sought information from county officials concerning important public business using standard and professional methods,” Zaitz said in a statement. “At no time has anyone from the Enterprise abused any personal cell number of a government official.”
On Twitter, Zaitz noted that the paper “has been deeply transparent” about its reporting, and cited an article published Sunday that detailed its reporting process.
Zaitz also pointed out the irony of Smith complaining about “after hours” requests, posting a screenshot of an email the paper received from Smith’s office on Saturday morning.
In a statement Tuesday, the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists defended the paper’s reporters, noting that what they did was perfectly normal and that “there is nothing to suggest any criminal behavior by The Malheur Enterprise.”
“Journalists doggedly pursue the stories they’re working on to inform the public and their readership of what is important to their communities. It is work vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy and protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment,” said Amanda Waldroupe, president of the Oregon journalism organization. “It is not at all unusual for journalists to use any available contact information to contact a source. And, sources often share their personal contact information with journalists.”
Waldroupe also said that Smith frequently gives out his personal contact information to reporters ― including herself — making it “all the more ironic, even hypocritical, that Smith criticizes the Enterprise.”
This article has been updated to include Wolfe’s comment that he wouldn’t pursue an investigation.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Society of Professional Journalists.