N.C. newspaper to appeal reporter’s fine for reading secret document

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—A newspaper will appeal a $1,000 fine against a reporter convicted of reading a secret settlement document that a federal judge said was sealed.

Kirsten B. Mitchell, Raleigh bureau chief of the Morning Star of Wilmington, was fined $1,000 Feb. 24 by U.S. district court Judge Earl Britt. The judge agreed to withhold imposition of the fine while the newspaper appeals to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Attorneys for the newspaper, which is owned by The New York Times Co., said Mitchell did nothing wrong when she helped another reporter seek information on the settlement. Mitchell’s name appeared as a postscript when the story was published in October.

“It is doubly distressing that a reporter, or any member of the public, can be convicted for nothing more or less than reviewing a document given to her by a court clerk,” said New York Times lawyer George Freeman.

“Both long-standing journalistic tradition and legal precedent are turned on their heads by this decision, which imposes a responsibility to ignore or return a document provided by a government employee. Such a notion is deeply at odds with the First Amendment.”

Mitchell testified in December the settlement was in a stack of documents she received from a clerk, who since has retired. The letter the document was in had been sealed but was marked “opened” when she got it, so she read it.

The information about the secret $36 million settlement between Conoco Oil Co. and residents of a Wilmington neighborhood where water was contaminated already had been obtained by reporter Cory Reiss. Britt dismissed a contempt charge against Reiss and the newspaper.

Britt said he was holding imposition of the fine because he wanted the case reviewed by the appeals court. The newspaper lawyers earlier told him they would immediately seek a stay of the fine if he didn’t do it himself.

“If there is error in what I have done, I don’t want you to pay anything,” said Britt.

The maximum penalty Mitchell faced was six months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. The U.S. Justice Department had refused to prosecute the case, so Britt hired his own special prosecutor to bring charges. Britt said he never intended to send her to prison.

The newspaper also is appealing a $500,000 civil fine levied by Britt in December.

“The print media has consistently missed the message of what this case is about,” said David Long, the special prosecutor. “Kirsten Mitchell stands convicted of violating a court order. It has nothing to do with freedom of the press.”

Mitchell told the judge she didn’t intend to violate a court order or show disrespect for his authority.

Her attorney, Stephen Smith, said the message Britt intended to convey—that court orders are hallowed—already had resonated through the clerk’s office, newsrooms and lawyers’ offices.

After the hearing, Smith said the judge’s actions “created a lot of uncertainty … about court documents and court orders.”

Mitchell’s boss, Morning Star Executive Editor Charles Anderson, said she had done nothing wrong and was “going back to work.”

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