Can a Red-Neck Sheriff Peruse Your Online Reading Habits?

by francine Hardaway on October 20, 2007

I rarely write about politics, because I’m just not well-enough informed. But two good friends of mine own the Phoenix New Times, published by VillageVoice Media, and what has happened to them is a microscosm of what has happened in post-9/11 America, a land of illegal wiretaps, entrapment, surveillance, and Homeland Security.I remember when they started it, just after I moved to Phoenix from New York. I found it like a homing pidgeon, and became the first (unpaid) film reviewer. The volatile and charming Mike Lacey was one of my editors. Needless to say, he fired me when I started my PR firm (which I did at his suggestion), but we are dear friends.

I have watched Mike defend the Constitution, the rights of the downtrodden, and the rights of journalists for thirty-five years. He truly believes that the people have a right to know, and though along the way the New Times has become known more for full-page car stereo ads and indiscreet personals than for its reporting, it has continued to enforce the highest journalistic standards and exercise the most careful oversight of its reporters. It consistently wins all the reporting prizes in its categories.

So of course Sheriff Joe Arpaijo, the guy with the tent city jail and the inmates in pink underwear (we don’t believe in rehabilitation of our prisoners, just in their degradation and humiliation) has now subpoenaed the notes and records of not only New Times reporters who have written stories about him that he doesn’t like, but also those of the New Times readers who have read those stories.

What’s up with that? And in the middle of this, the country attorney who prosecutes the case tries to have an ex parte meeting with the judge. Clearly unethical and not permitted by grand jury rules. Or any justice system rules. Fortunately the judge was ethical and blew the whistle on the county attorney’s effort.

And then Lacey and his partner of nearly forty years, Jim Larkin, decided to blow the whistle on the entire issue.
It is, we fear, the authorities’ belief that what you are about to read here is against the law to publish. But there are moments when civil disobedience is merely the last option. We pray that our judgment is free of arrogance.

These are the issues as we understand them.

In a breathtaking abuse of the United States Constitution, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, and their increasingly unhinged cat’s paw, special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik, used the grand jury to subpoena “all documents related to articles and other content published by Phoenix New Times newspaper in print and on the Phoenix New Times website, regarding Sheriff Joe Arpaio from January 1, 2004 to the present.”

Just as they did when they founded New Times, they have bet the farm on this one. Civil disobedience is no joke. They could lose their entire business and everything they worked so hard to build. But they have, like not many people in the United States today, a set of principles.

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