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SPJ asks that charges be dropped against North Carolina reporter


Christine Tatum, secretary/treasurer, ctatum@spj.org or 303/820-1015

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists condemns the arrest of reporter Demorris Lee of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and urges local law enforcement officers to drop any charges against him immediately.

Lee was doing his job in the interest of fairness and accuracy when he called Ruth A. Brown, seeking comment for a story he was writing that pertained to her. Brown had accused two people -- one a 14-year-old boy -- of breaking into her home and robbing her at gunpoint. Her testimony helped convict the teenager, who now is serving at least 10 years in prison. Durham police have reopened the case. Lee tried to contact Brown to get her side of the story.

Brown, a property room technician for the Durham, N.C., Police Department, didn’t return what Lee and his editors say were only two phone calls made in a professional manner. Brown did not contact Lee’s editors to lodge a complaint. Instead, she convinced a Durham magistrate, Angel Foster, to issue an arrest warrant, charging Lee with making harassing phone calls. Lee was arrested Nov. 14.

The nation’s largest journalism organization calls on Durham County District Attorney James E. Hardin Jr. to drop the charge against Brown immediately. Hardin is expected to conduct interviews next week to determine whether he’ll move forward with the case.

“This situation is disturbing on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin to criticize it,” said Christine Tatum, secretary/treasurer of SPJ and a business writer at The Denver Post. “An arrest warrant of this nature should never have been obtained so easily. Press freedom is truly at stake. If magistrates were to apply the law in the same ridiculous way as this North Carolina magistrate, thousands of reporters could be sent to jail every day for making two, perhaps even three, phone calls to people who are unwilling to speak. Those calls are crucial to ensuring an ethical and responsible press, and they serve the public’s interest.”

“It is imperative that reporters be allowed to contact the subjects of stories without fear of reprisal,” added SPJ President-Elect David Carlson, a professor at the University of Florida. “If not, it will become impossible to produce fair and balanced accounts of events, and that will serve no one’s interests.”

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 public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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