NC editor jailed after reporter records court proceedings

June 22, 2021

Gavin Stone, an editor for the Richmond County Daily Journal, was charged on June 22, 2021, with criminal contempt of court for violating an administrative order that forbade the use of electronic equipment in the courtroom, according to the charging document reviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Stone was charged along with Daily Journal reporter Matthew Sasser, who had brought a tape recorder into a courtroom while covering a murder trial. Stone acknowledged that he incorrectly instructed Sasser that he could bring a tape recorder into court, according to court documents and Brian Bloom, the newspaper’s regional publisher, who spoke with CPJ. CPJ is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Both Sasser and Stone acknowledged that they violated an August 2019 bar on electronic devices, but said they did not correctly understand that tape recorders were also prohibited inside the courtroom, according to the court document.

The Associated Press reported that, under North Carolina law, courts can punish someone for criminal contempt if they had previously been warned by the court that the conduct was improper.

Stone had in January 2020 received notice in a letter from Chief District Court Judge Amanda Wilson claiming he had violated the August 2019 order by photographing in the courtroom and publishing that image in the Daily Journal.

Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell, who filed the June 2021 charges against the journalists, sentenced Stone to five days in prison and jailed the editor immediately following the hearing, according to Bloom and the AP. Stone told the Tracker he was released after approximately 24 hours in custody.

Sasser was fined $500, the maximum allowed, according to the same sources. The Tracker has documented his charges here.

An attorney representing the journalists filed an immediate appeal, securing Stone’s release, according to the AP. Futrell lifted the initial penalties and the editor and reporter will appear before an appeals court in August, Bloom told CPJ. If their convictions are upheld, each could face a fine up to $500, 30 days in prison or both, according to the court document.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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