After months reporting on a local politician’s contract work in Malheur County, journalists at a small newspaper in eastern Oregon now face a possible criminal investigation for their conduct.
According to The Washington Post, the Malheur Enterprise is being investigated for harassment because State Rep. Greg Smith, the lawmaker at the heart of their reporting, complained that reporters repeatedly called and emailed him and other county employees during non-business hours.
“It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” Rep. Smith told Malheur Enterprise. Rep. Smith asked that the newspaper use only a single county email address for future questions.
Oregon state does have laws restricting “telephonic harassment,” or “intentionally harass[ing] or annoy[ing] another person,” but applying them to journalists whose job requires them to call public officials raises First Amendment concerns. Among the problems are the law’s wording: both “harassing” and “annoying” are words that might be too vague to pass constitutional scrutiny.
Editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, Les Zaitz finds the accusations leveled against his reporters to be unfounded.
“Our news staff has sought information from county officials concerning important public business using standard and professional methods,” Zaitz said. “Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise.”
“It is fundamentally antithetical to freedom of the press in the United States, and this is more intimidation than anything that responsible government authorities [would do],” University of Oregon law professor Kyu Ho Youm said in an interview with The Washington Post. He added that the investigation into the Malheur Enterprise is part of an alarming national trend whereby government officials take “legally questionable action against reporters in the face of unfavorable coverage.”
As of Monday morning, Sheriff Brian E. Wolfe told the Malheur Enterprise he was still debating whether to investigate the newspaper.