Officials in a Chicago suburb issued citations to a local news reporter in late October after he persistently contacted elected officials about a flooding issue.
The Daily Southtown, a regional newspaper owned by the Chicago Tribune Media Group, the parent company of The Chicago Tribune, published an article by Hank Sanders about consultants informing officials in Calumet City, Ill., that storm water facilities were in “poor condition” before a flood swept through the community in September.
Mr. Sanders, the reporter, continued to inquire about flooding issues after the article was published. His calls and emails drew complaints from Calumet City officials, including Mayor Thaddeus Jones, a Democrat who is also a state representative.
Calumet City, just south of Chicago, sent three notices to Mr. Sanders, saying that he had violated local ordinances. The city cited “interference/hampering of city employees” as the offense, as reported by The Chicago Tribune this month.
“Despite all FOIA requests being filled, Hank Sanders continues to contact city departments and city employees via phone and email,” one of the violation notices stated, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. “Despite request from Calumet City attorneys to stop calling city departments and employees, Hank Sanders continues to do so.”
The summons issued on Oct. 30 requested Mr. Sanders appear in court. It’s unclear if there are fines associated with the citations; there are none listed on the forms, but Chicago Tribune lawyers said that the maximum fine for each citation is $500, said Mitch Pugh, the newspaper’s executive editor.
“It’s clearly an attempt to intimidate and interfere with his reporting” Mr. Pugh said.
The case is among other recent quarrels between city officials and local news outlets across the country that have raised questions about the role of a free press as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
In late October, a newspaper publisher and reporter in Atmore, Ala., were arrested after being accused of disclosing grand jury evidence in the investigation of a school board’s handling of relief funds. In August, the police raided a newspaper’s office in Marion County, Kan., and the home of its owner, in connection to an investigation about how a government record concerning a local restaurant owner was obtained by the publication.
It’s essential that news organizations speak out against First Amendment infringements such as these, said Don Craven, who is the president, chief executive and general counsel of the Illinois Press Association.
“Newspapers have two ways of fighting back: One is litigation and the other is newsprint and ink,” Mr. Craven said. “We have more of that than anybody else. We have to use it.”
The case involving Mr. Sanders is not of the same magnitude as other recent actions by local governments to curtail press operations, “but it’s a part of the same trend,” Mr. Pugh said.
Mr. Craven said that he was optimistic that Calumet City would withdraw the citations. “We’re hopeful that our lawyer and their lawyer can have an adult conversation and understand that these are out of bounds and they’ll be withdrawn,” Mr. Pugh said, “and we can go back to doing our jobs.”
Calumet City did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday. The city attorney, Patrick W. Walsh, told The Chicago Tribune that employees had complained about Mr. Sanders’s phone calls and felt harassed.
The violation notices state that Mr. Sanders sent 14 emails in a nine-day period. Mr. Sanders said in an interview that he had sent the 14 emails to four or five different people during that time period.
Even though the citations had created a bit of a stir, Mr. Sanders said he wasn’t too worried.
“At the end of the day, I am having a lot of fun and I’ve got the right people in my corner,” Mr. Sanders said. “I’m not thinking too much about it, and I just want to push along.”