Bohl: Could printing critical reports land you in jail?

A truly astonishing - and disturbing - story has been quietly unfolding in the High Desert and our downtown courts.

The latest twist in the story broke in the back pages of The Sun earlier this week. An 85-year-old, quirky newspaper publisher and multimillionnaire named Raymond Pryke was arrested for allegedly hiring a locksmith to help him burglarize a house.

Sound bizarre? You ain't seen nothing yet.

A little lower in our story, we mentioned that Pryke had been embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle with Sheriff Gary Penrod's wife, Nancy, over allegedly libelous stories against her and her corporation.

The Sheriffs was the arresting and jailing agency on Pryke's alleged burglary.

But now, a Press Enterprise story you can see here brings up a number of shocking new details.

1) The day of Pryke's arrest, he was scheduled to be in court for his case defending himself against the allegations made by Penrod's wife.

2) Judge Kenneth Barr issued a protective order preventing Pryke from publishing information about the case before trial. This is what we in journalism call, with great revulsion, "prior restraint." It's a notoriously difficult thing to achieve in courts, and when it is, it is often struck down by higher courts. Having the power to muzzle the press ante publication is dangerous ground. Richard Nixon tried, unsuccessfully, to impose prior restraint on the New York Times to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers.

3) In 2005, Superior Court Judge Christopher Warner slapped Pryke with a $3 million judgment for refusing to divulge then-anonymous sources and for "impugning" Penrod's wife's character and that of her corporation. This alone is shocking, seeing that public figures (and yes, the Sheriffs wife qualifies) virtually never win libel cases against the press. California also has a shield law protecting journalists from being forced to divulge sources.

4) Predictably, a Riverside appeals court composed of three outside judges threw out Warner's judgement against the newspaperman, concluding that Pryke was protected by California's reporter shield law (gee, ya think) and that Warner had "abused his discretion," strong words between courtrooms.

5) According to the Press Enterprise, Warner wrote as part of his 2005 judgement, "The articles impugn the character, integrity and reputation of (Penrod's wife, Nancy) Bohl and her corporation."

Think about that logic for a moment. Since when do articles that "impugn" public people possibly working with public funds become grounds for ruinous court judgements against the newspapers? The articles in part claimed Penrod's wife's company received favored contracts thanks to her husband's position, something that has not been proved.

Can you imagine if publishers of articles that met those grounds - impugning public people and corporations - were routinely successfully sued by deep-pocketed public officials? Bye bye democracy.

Perhaps Pryke's arrest was a coincidence. Perhaps some deputies who had no idea who he was simply followed the law and put him in jail for burglarizing a house with the help of a locksmith.

Or perhaps the 85-year-old Pryke, purported to be worth well over $10 million, wasn't really burglarizing a home the day before he had to be in court in the case of his life.

I can't say what exactly is going on here. What I can say is that if the free press is pounded into compliance by local policing forces and/or stripped by courts of First Amendment protections to print freely and critically on public people and agencies, then the bedrock principles on which the nation was founded are in peril.

Without question, this issue should be receiving robust front-page and back-page (strong news coverage, strong editorial stances) attention from all local newspapers. Silence and inattention are the enablers of injustice, and if injustices are to occur here, they can stand only if left in the dark.

Frankly, I can think of no greater domestic threat than that of the state (government, courts, police, etc.) abandoning its fidelity to the principle of a free and vigorious press and instead using the power of government institutions to bully the press into submission.

I don't know if that is happening in this case, but the ingredients are clearly present.

Posted by Robert Rogers on May 10, 2008 12:53 PM

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