The Man Decides He Doesn’t Like Being Hassled, Issues Tickets To Reporter For ‘Hampering’ City Employees With His Questions

from the ah-now-the-boot’s-on-the-other-foot-eh dept

Some city officials in Illinois are now engaged in a round of “How Can I Get Sued?” Sounds like fun, but Calumet City officials might do well to remember the only way to win is not to play.

That’s the upshot of the latest bit of officious nonsense to surface in the Chicago area. Granted, it’s far more innocuous than unjustified killings perpetrated by cops or law enforcement operating its own off-the-books, rights-free interrogation black site.

But it’s far from harmless. This suburb of Chicago — as poorly represented by elected representatives and the law enforcement agency they oversee — has decided it’s time to start punishing journalists for doing journalism, as Gregory Platt details in this report for the Chicago Tribune.

Calumet City officials have issued municipal citations to a Daily Southtown reporter who they allege violated local ordinances by seeking comment from public employees on major flooding issues in the area.

Several notices sent to reporter Hank Sanders describe the alleged violations as “interference/hampering of city employees.”

Now, there’s something you rarely see on a Civics test. How does one “hamper” a city employee, if one were so inclined (or not even inclined, as is the case here) to do so?

There’s no clear answer here. This is how it went down in Calumet, though. “Hampering” — like all the best laws — is interpreted subjectively.

Hank Sanders apparently had several questions about the city’s storm water facilities, which were apparently already in poor condition prior to their inability to handle September’s historic rainfall. After widespread flooding in the city’s poorest neighborhood, Sanders hounded city officials, including Mayor Thaddeus Jones, with questions about these facilities.

At some point, these officials decided Sanders had asked too many questions. Rather than respect someone who firmly believed the best modifier for “reporting” is “dogged,” these officials decided to hit Sanders with citations for… well, what exactly?

“Despite all FOIA requests being filled, Hank Sanders continues to contact city departments and city employees via phone and email,” the violation notice mentioning Jones states. “Despite request from Calumet City attorneys to stop calling city departments and employees, Hank Sanders continues to do so.”

Rather than simply “no comment” their way out of these interactions, the city decided to fine Sanders for asking questions. And while a “no comment” is never satisfactory, it at least does not come with fines and fees attached.

Continuing to ask questions after being given some answers is what these officials apparently believe satisfies the legal definition of “hampering.” And that belief is just as ridiculous as this response to Sanders and his ongoing queries.

I’m sure these particularly officious officials will be startled to learn that these fines and fees won’t stick because there’s simply no way for Sanders to determine when he’s crossed the line from performing his journalistic duties and (in the legal sense) “hampering” city employees.

“Between the dates of October 4th and October 12th Hank Sanders sent fourteen (14) emails to the city of Calumet City reference the recent flooding,” the Wilson notice states.

What is he supposed to glean from a legal notice like this one? Is 14 emails one too many? Would 12 be acceptable? Is it that 14 emails were sent in nine days? If 14 emails were sent over a ten-day period, would that be non-hampering? In other words, there’s nothing in this that makes it clear where persistence becomes legally actionable harassment under the ordinance being used to punish Sanders for continuing to demand answers from elected officials.

And, as long as Sanders can’t define it and city leaders can’t explicitly say what does or does not constitute a “hampering,” it remains exactly what it appears to be: a ham-fisted effort to silence a journalist who’s done nothing more than engage in acts of journalism. First Amendment litigators, start your engines!

Filed Under: calumet city, foia, hampering city employees, hank sanders, illinois, journalism

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