Over the past year or so, we’ve seen and heard a lot about free speech and our First Amendment rights to such, as time and time again, that right has been infringed upon thanks to liberal media outlets and social media platforms. Usually, this comes in the form of censorship, particularly when we’re talking about celebrities and well-known politicians.
However, this story is proof that free speech is also being hindered in small towns and towards ordinary people just doing their jobs.
Enter the small community of Richmond County, North Carolina.
Here a murder trial was recently held in the superior court, presided over by Judge Stephan Futrell. Now, as uncommon as murder trials go in such a place, there were quite naturally a few members of the press to report on it.
Richmond County Daily Journal reporter Matthew Sasser was one such individual. Like all the other journalists, reporters, and press members, Sasser sat in the back of the courtroom, taking it all in. But as it was soon made clear, Sasser had made a significant mistake…
As Judge Futrell soon noticed, Sasser had brought in a small recording device to capture the audio portion of the event to better report on it later.
Now, as you might know, cameras, recording devices, and other similar objects are usually banned from the courtroom. The case was no different here. It was clear Sasser had broken the rules, whether he knew it or not.
Naturally, once it was noticed, the listening device was asked to be removed from the courtroom, to which Sasser immediately obliged, according to the Associated Press.
Ok, all seems fine. No harm done yet, no major foul, right? So what’s the big deal?
Well, the big deal comes when Judge Futrell tells the court bailiff to have Sasser, as well as his boss, editor Gavin Stone, come back to the courtroom after the listening device was securely removed from the building.
And when the pair returned, Judge Futrell paused the murder trial yet again to hold both of the men in contempt of court. In addition, Sasser was fined $500 for his mistake, and Stone was sentenced to a total of five days in jail.
Keep in mind that Stone was not even in the courtroom when the tape recorder was and may not have even known of its use until he was brought before the judge. However, Futrell must have felt that as Sasser’s boss, he must either ordered the use of it or at the very least known about it. And so punished him as if he himself had done the deed.
Then again, as the Daily Journal’s publisher Brian Bloom told the AP, even that made little sense, as “(t)he penalty does not fit the crime.”
Bloom was able to get Stone out of jail after one night, but should an appeals court not dismiss the case against him, he could be forced to return.
Bloom noted that the judge stopped ‘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.”
Like most of us, Bloom is no doubt of the mind that certain things are more important than others. And in this case, getting a murder solved, closure given, and a suspect punished seems much more likely to be at the top of anyone’s list.
Apparently, Futrell disagrees.
Now, that’s not to say that Sasser shouldn’t have been reprimanded for his breaking of the rules. However, this isn’t exactly the right way to go about it, I’d say.
If Futrell had decided that calling him out in the middle of a trial and forcing him to leave was not enough, he could have just as easily scheduled for Sasser to come back at a later date to be dealt with then. Instead, he put a murder trial of all things on hold to deal with a tiny infraction that could have waited.
As director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and assistant professor of journalism at Elon University, Brooks Fuller noted, the fact that he didn’t and that he took such a radical position on punishment is “a little disturbing,” to say the least.
And he’s not wrong there.