Robert Leger, SPJ national president, 417/836-1113, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kimberly Hundley, vice president, SPJ Valley of the Sun (Phoenix) chapter, 602/579-4111, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A criminal trespassing charge against an Arizona reporter seeking comment from a former police officer facing murder charges is an affront to a free press, the Society of Professional Journalists says.
SPJ President Robert Leger and SPJ’s Valley of the Sun (Phoenix) professional chapter criticized the charges against Bryon Wells as an attempt to chill the newsgathering process.
Wells, a police reporter with the East Valley & Scottsdale Tribune, went to the Chandler, Ariz., home of former Chandler Police Officer Dan Lovelace on Nov. 6, according to police reports. He opened an unlocked 3-foot-high gate marked with a “no trespassing” sign, walked to the front door and rang the bell. A woman appeared from the side of the house. Wells identified himself. When she asked him to leave, he did.
The next day, Lovelace was indicted on charges of second-degree murder and endangerment in the Oct. 11 shooting of Dawn Rae Nelson of Phoenix in a drugstore drive-through lane. Lovelace was fired after the shooting.
Wells was charged last week with criminal trespassing, a class 1 misdemeanor, and is scheduled to appear March 26 in Chandler Municipal Court.
The extreme rarity of a police officer being charged with murder made the Lovelace story one of high public interest. Wells was simply trying to be fair in seeking the officer’s side of the story, said SPJ President Robert Leger.
Authorities are prosecuting Wells because he is a journalist, said Leger, editorial page editor for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.
“A 12-year-old whose baseball bounced into Lovelace’s yard, ran there to find it and then ran off, would have spent about as much time on the property as Bryon Wells did,” Leger said. “I don’t imagine authorities prosecuting such a kid. Why are they going after Wells? The only reason is because he wanted to ask a question. When authorities start prosecuting legitimate news gathering efforts, we all are in trouble.”
Tribune attorney Dan Barr said prosecutors do not dispute that Wells was polite throughout the brief exchange and left immediately after being asked to do so.
Phoenix SPJ Chapter Vice President Kimberly Hundley said while she understands Lovelace’s desire to shield himself and his family from intense media coverage, the charges against Wells are out of proportion to the reporter’s actions.
“Does Scottsdale prosecute door-to-door salespeople who might walk past a sign but leave immediately when asked by the homeowner? How about Mormon missionaries, or Girl Scouts selling their cookies?” Hundley said.
Hundley said Wells was trying to give Lovelace every opportunity to speak on his own behalf so Wells’ newspaper could provide a fair and balanced report on this traumatic case.
“The filing of criminal charges should frighten anyone who cherishes the First Amendment right of a journalist to seek out the subject of a story and invite him to tell his side,” Hundley said.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.