Pennsylvania journalist Jerry Geleff, host of The Exeter Underground podcast and publisher of The Exeter Examiner, was ordered on Dec. 15, 2022, to take down reporting on a leaked document and destroy copies of it.
In July 2022, Geleff filed a public records request for a report from an investigation into allegations of harassment against a Township Supervisor. His request and subsequent appeal were denied. During a Dec. 14 episode of the Underground, Geleff announced that he had obtained excerpts of the report and read sections aloud. He also published images of the first page and the last two pages on his local news website, the Examiner, which transitioned to Facebook-only in early 2023.
According to court records reviewed by the Tracker, an attorney for the Township emailed Geleff on Dec. 15 at 10:45 a.m., threatening legal action against him unless he immediately agreed to return all physical or electronic copies of the report, and destroy copies and descriptions of it that had been published on his platforms. The attorney said he would bring a lawsuit against Geleff and his media companies, and had plans to present an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction, an order requiring Geleff to destroy and unpublish the report, to a judge at 1:30 p.m. that day.
Geleff told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he replied he would not comply with the request.
The judge granted the Township’s motion at 2 p.m., and within two hours Geleff had removed the podcast and the article with images of the report.
“I had no time to get legal representation and how a judge allowed that to happen I can’t understand,” Geleff said.
That evening, Geleff posted on the Examiner’s Facebook page a link to an external website that published photos of the report. Within 15 minutes, he was contacted by the Township’s attorney who alleged posting the link violated the order. Geleff promptly removed that post and mentions of the website from his podcast.
Two days later, Geleff published an article (available through a web archive) about the emergency order and the lawsuit against him, alleging that it was entirely retaliatory.
“This is nothing but retribution for a very vocal critic who has a media outlet and audience. They are attempting to silence any dissent of their plans. And they must be stopped,” Geleff wrote.
On Dec. 23, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a motion to dissolve the restraint on Geleff’s behalf. RCFP Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke wrote that the prior restraint “flatly violates” the First Amendment and the state’s constitution.
That same day, the Township’s attorney filed a motion for Geleff to be held in contempt for the Facebook post linking to the external website, asking that the court fine Geleff and order him to pay the Township’s attorneys and court fees.
In its January 2023 filing of arguments against the lawsuit and the motion to hold Geleff in contempt, RCFP attorney Burke wrote that the Township was asking the court to further punish Geleff without cause.
“This behavior would be troubling from a private litigant. From the Township, a local government seeking to punish one of its residents for speech on a matter of public interest, it shocks the conscience,” Burke wrote.
On Jan. 10, the Township’s attorney withdrew the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be refiled at a later date. The preliminary injunction barring Geleff from publishing the report was also lifted.
Geleff republished his article and podcast episode that day, writing on the Examiner’s Facebook, “The cowardly Exeter Township Supervisors dropped their lawsuit against me, and I'm able to put this back up. The unconstitutional temporary injunction they were granted no longer applies.”
On its Facebook page, the Township acknowledged that portions of the report had continued to be shared online and that continuing the lawsuit would only incur additional expenses for the taxpayers.