Reporter fined for contempt after recording NC court proceedings

June 22, 2021

Matthew Sasser, a reporter for the Richmond County Daily Journal, was charged on June 22, 2021, with criminal contempt of court for bringing a tape recorder into a courtroom while covering a murder trial, according to the charging document reviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The charging document states that on June 21 and 22 Sasser violated a standing administrative order from August 2019 forbidding the use of electronic equipment in the courtroom.

Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell fined Sasser $500, the maximum allowed. In the same hearing, Futrell charged Sasser’s editor Gavin Stone with contempt of court for instructing Sasser that he could bring a tape recorder into court, according to the court documents and the newspaper’s regional publisher Brian Bloom, who spoke to CPJ. CPJ is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Both Sasser and Stone acknowledged that they violated the August 2019 order, 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.

During a June 22 court hearing, Stone was sentenced to 5 days in prison and was jailed immediately. Stone told the Tracker he was released after approximately 24 hours in custody. 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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