Journalist Penalized by Illinois City for Excessive Inquiries, Stirring First Amendment Concerns

by Sophia Chen
First Amendment controversy

In a recent confrontation over First Amendment rights, a municipal journalist in a suburb of Chicago faced citations for what has been described as excessive attempts to contact city officials for commentary on dangerous autumn flooding.

Calumet City, with a population of 35,000 and situated 24 miles south of Chicago, has accused Hank Sanders, a journalist for the Daily Southtown, of “interference with city employees” as he pursued statements for his reporting, according to a Chicago Tribune article from Friday.

This event joins a series of constitutional disputes nationwide, including the arrest of a journalist and publisher from a local Alabama newspaper following their coverage of a school district under grand jury scrutiny, and a police search of a Kansas newspaper and its publisher’s residence over conflicts with a local business owner.

In his October 20 article, Sanders detailed consultants’ warnings to Calumet City leaders about inadequate stormwater systems, following destructive September rainfall. Despite official statements, Sanders made repeated calls and sent emails to city staff, eliciting objections from Mayor Thaddeus Jones, who also serves as a Democratic state legislator.

The Chicago Tribune, owning the Daily Southtown as well, mentioned that Sanders was instructed to direct inquiries through Mayor Jones’ spokesperson, Sean Howard. However, Sanders sent 14 emails over nine days in October with flood-related questions, as noted in one citation.

Chicago Tribune’s executive editor, Mitch Pugh, emphasized Sanders’ persistence stemmed from research for an upcoming article on the flooding. He pointed out these citations, although not as severe as other incidents, indicated a troubling trend of misunderstanding First Amendment protections, the role of journalism, and media’s societal function.

With a history of challenges at a national level, Pugh expressed concern over such issues arising in small municipalities, highlighting the need for public officials to recognize and respect the media’s role rather than employing intimidation tactics.

The constitutional right to freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment, guarding against governmental hindrance.

Efforts to reach Jones for a response remained unanswered. Howard deferred to city attorney Patrick Walsh on this legal issue, and Walsh has yet to respond.

Don Craven, leading the Illinois Press Association, condemned the citations. He reaffirmed the media’s crucial democratic role, criticizing the city’s approach of faulting the journalist instead of addressing the problem at hand.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about First Amendment controversy

What prompted the municipal citations against journalist Hank Sanders?

Hank Sanders received citations from Calumet City officials for what they deemed excessive communication with city employees. He was seeking comments on the city’s handling of hazardous flooding conditions.

How did the city of Calumet City justify issuing citations to a reporter?

The city accused Hank Sanders of “interference with city employees,” alleging that his persistent contacts impeded their work. Sanders was reportedly seeking information on the city’s response to severe flooding.

What larger issues does this incident with the journalist in Calumet City raise?

This citation case in Calumet City echoes wider First Amendment concerns, highlighting a pattern where government officials appear to misunderstand the rights of journalists and the role of a free press in society.

Has there been a response from the news outlets regarding the citations?

Yes, Mitch Pugh, the Chicago Tribune’s executive editor, expressed that these actions represent a lack of understanding of the First Amendment and a journalist’s role, and he stressed the need to address such incidents publicly.

What is the stance of the Illinois Press Association on this matter?

The Illinois Press Association, through its president Don Craven, criticized the city’s actions, emphasizing the essential function of the media in a democracy and condemning the shift of blame onto the reporter rather than addressing the issues reported.

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SarahK November 4, 2023 - 12:08 pm

Honestly this is worrying how are journalists supposed to do their work if they’re getting penalized for asking questions, that’s their job

Mike Johnson November 4, 2023 - 12:24 pm

can’t believe what I’m reading is this really what we’ve come to Issuing tickets to a reporter just doing his job what’s next

Tom_the_Skeptic November 5, 2023 - 12:13 am

i’ll bet there’s more to the story, cities don’t just hand out citations for no reason, but then again, the First amendment is clear, isn’t it?

Dave93 November 5, 2023 - 1:23 am

thaddeus jones needs to remember that being a mayor doesn’t put him above the first amendment, reporters have rights too

Jenny87 November 5, 2023 - 3:05 am

seems like the whole thing could’ve been avoided if the city just gave clear answers in the first place transparency is key guys


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