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Tribune editorial: Officers must know laws for journalists

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Law enforcement officers are expected to have knowledge of the state’s laws, and when they fall short it’s disappointing. Fortunately, in a Williston incident Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem acted quickly to right the situation.

Tom Simon, a reporter with Williston Trending Topics News Radio Live and Coyote Radio 98.5, was covering a Williston school district meeting. Local police are conducting an investigation in the district and asked the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation for help.

BCI Agent Charissa Remus asked Simon to identify his sources and then ordered him to turn over his cellphone. Simon, uncertain of his rights and feeling intimidated, surrendered his phone.

First, asking Simon to identify his sources was inappropriate. Members of the news media work hard to protect their sources. Not everyone will go on the record and be identified, but they will provide background information. Law enforcement has the option of going to court in an effort to get information.

Secondly, Remus shouldn’t have demanded the cellphone. North Dakota’s shield law requires a court hearing before a reporter’s phone or other material can be seized. Remus did file an affidavit with Northwest District Judge Benjamen J. Johnson seeking a search warrant.

The North Dakota Newspaper Association's attorney contacted Stenehjem, and the attorney general ordered the return of the phone. He said the phone hadn’t been inspected.

It’s good the situation was resolved in a fairly short time, but it’s unfortunate that it occurred at all. Law enforcement officers should have an understanding of the law as it relates to journalists. The credibility of journalists is at stake when they are asked to reveal sources.

Officers need to know the procedures they must follow when dealing with the news media. If training is needed, the BCI and other agencies ought to provide that to prevent a repeat incident.

Journalists also must keep informed about the laws related to their profession. The North Dakota Newspaper Association provides updates on the laws relating to open meetings and open records. The association’s attorney holds periodic sessions on laws related to journalists, and newspapers often consult with the attorney.

Journalists have the responsibility, just like law enforcement, to be informed. There always will be a somewhat adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the media. At the same time, there are many instances in which the two work together, such as with public service announcements and updates on criminal cases.

Simon hoped for an apology, which hadn’t been offered at the time this was written. More important, however, was that Stenehjem acknowledged the agent’s mistake. It doesn’t resolve the perceived intimidation of Simon. Trying to bully journalists won’t be successful.

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