By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Sanford has decided against criminalizing news reporting, after all.
On Thursday night, City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. said the city decided that, on second thought, news reporters would not be subject to arrest if they pursued the Trayvon Martin story after working hours. The city had said Wednesday that police would arrest reporters on stalking charges if they contacted city employees after working hours. That included sending emails, calling or approaching workers.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Bonaparte reconsidered the issue after the newspaper and WFTV-Channel 9 wrote to him, contending the ban was unconstitutional:
The letter stated that constitutionally protected conduct, such as news gathering, cannot be considered stalking. It also said the city’s directive amounted to censorship.
“Certainly, any city employee is free to decline to answer e-mail or is free to tell a reporter that he or she does not want to answer questions,” wrote Rachel E. Fugate of Thomas & Locicero.
It’s easy to see why Sanford city officials wish they’d be left alone. The city has been the center of a maelstrom of national and international attention over the February 26 killing of unarmed teenager Martin and the lack of charges against the shooter, George Zimmerman.
But the fury shows little sign of abating. And in the absence of legal-system machinery, the court of public opinion — in the form of cable TV news shows, blogs and social media — is raging.
In the last few days an anonymous witness emerged to say that Zimmerman appeared to walk away from his fatal scuffle with Martin without any visible marks or bruises, though he has said he was bleeding and suffered a broken nose. Sanford police released surveillance camera footage, which showed a seemingly uninjured Zimmerman exit a police car and walk into police headquarters on the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s brother gave an interview, asserting that the neighborh0od watch volunteer acted in fear of his life.