The issue of what documents are legal for journalists, bloggers or even John Q. Public to publish is a hot one these days.
The matter was brought to the fore nationally earlier this month in connection with the release of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. A couple of weeks ago CNN host Chris Cuomo warned his audience, “Remember, it’s illegal to possess these stolen documents. It’s different for the media. So everything you learn about this, you’re learning from us.”
Scary, but also wrong. Just as it has been legal for newspapers, TV, bloggers and others to run these ill-gotten emails, so too is it legal for any “average” citizen to do likewise. Unfortunately there are still many people in government — and apparently even in the media — who believe such documents are illegal to possess. While it is certainly illegal to steal those documents, via hacking or simply walking away with them, there’s nothing illegal about a third party making them public.
Or at least there’s not supposed to be. In Alabama we still have an obviously unconstitutional law against the publication of expunged criminal records. The law, passed in 2014, has so far been used only once, and that has been to arrest and charge Daphne online investigative reporter/blogger John Caylor. Caylor published the expunged drug arrest record of Scott Smith III, who is currently a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Ginny Granade.
Smith had Caylor arrested under the fairly new law. Caylor agreed to take the records off his website, insider-magazine.com, following an evening court hearing in Daphne May 3, but the next morning Smith filed a second complaint with the police saying Caylor had failed to comply with the judge’s order and City Judge Michael Hoyt issued another warrant for his arrest, despite the records being offline by mid-morning. Caylor left the state rather than be arrested and is still a fugitive.
Where Caylor got Smith’s records has never been revealed. Smith has said Caylor stole them, but Caylor denies that. Now a blog called The Henry Report (henryreport.com) has pointed to a Houston County whistleblower/activist as the source, but that’s not proven. At any rate Caylor still appears to be running from an unconstitutional law.
The latest example of this kind of overreach took place this month in Morgan County, Alabama, when Sheriff Ana Franklin had the offices of Glenda Lockhart raided, according to published reports. Lockhart runs a blog called the Morgan County Whistleblower that has been very critical of the sheriff, and it appears Franklin believed Lockhart had been emailed copies of documents sent by fired jail warden Leon Bradley.
Lockhart has since sued Franklin and two of her deputies, claiming they had no basis for raiding her business and seizing her computers. Lockhart’s business, unrelated to her blog, had 19 electronic devices, payroll and tax information, $5 million in contract data and $35,000 in software seized, according to her lawsuit. It has all since been returned.
It seems like Cuomo may have been partially correct, in that bigger “mainstream” media appears to be far less likely to be subjected to harassment from government officials when exercising rights we all have.