Journalists in Indiana are pushing back after Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered the state’s flagship newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, to stop publishing stories about his administration’s handling of worker safety investigations at Amazon facilities.
Holcomb issued a cease-and-desist letter on Nov. 29 to the newspaper and the nonprofit news organization that reported the news.
The governor demanded a correction and retraction after the Star published an investigation from the California-based Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting that alleged he was involved in the state’s effort to absolve Amazon of responsibility in the death of a worker at one of its fulfillment centers in Indiana.
The story was published as part of an investigative series on Amazon’s fulfillment centers from the nonprofit Reveal. Reveal has since clarified one part of a story, which the Indy Star noted, “updated the circumstances surrounding Indiana safety inspector John Stallone’s departure from his job.”
In stories that were produced by Reveal, the Indy Star published an editor’s note distinguishing the story as reported by Reveal.
The Indy Star and Reveal both did not immediately respond to comment.
According to story clarifications published by the Star, legal counsel for Reveal and Indy Star sent separate responses to the governor’s cease and desist letters.
In a follow-up article in the Indy Star reporting Holcomb’s disputes, Reveal’s Managing Editor Andy Donohue said the organization stands by its reporting.
The Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists denounced the cease-and-desist move in an open letter sent to the governor. “In our view, your cease-and-desist letters, issued on Nov. 29, are designed to intimidate reporters and journalists looking into your administration. The letters also add to the overall climate in the nation that looks to undermine the credibility of journalists and media outlets.”
John Russel, Indiana’s SPJ president, said journalists are not intimidated by the governor’s actions.
“We think he is trying to scare and threaten journalists,” Russel said. “It’s the first tactic in the playbook and you wonder what the next step will be.”
Holcomb’s cease-and-desist is of concern because he has put the Star on notice that he could take them to court and order the paper to retract their articles or not print future ones, Russel said. It’s an overreach, he added.
“When you have factual errors in a story, you go to the reporter and demand the correction if you think you are correct,” Russel said. “You don’t do the nuclear weapon off the bat, which is a cease and desist order.”
Holcomb acknowledged the cease-and-desist was an “unusual” move but said in a statement that the story contained “false allegations.”
“Unfortunately other news organizations have either published the same story in its entirety or other versions unchecked for truth and accuracy, further perpetuating a false narrative,” he said.
After consulting over email with a First Amendment and freedom of information lawyers, Russel said the cease-and-desist letter is a “rare tactic.”
Steve Key, executive diirector of the Hoosier State Press Association, said in this case, a cease-and-desist letter doesn’t do much because it’s predominantly used in situations of copyright infringement.
“If you are a subject of a story and unhappy with the story because you think it is false, what you need to do under Indiana law is send a letter requesting a retraction and you point out what is incorrect in that story,” said Key, a First Amendment attorney.
If Holcomb’s case is brought to court as a libel lawsuit, it is unlikely that it would win because the governor would have to prove there was a reckless disregard for the truth or malicious intent when it came to the accuracy of the Star’s reporting, Russel said.
“We don’t see either of those standards being met very easily,” Russel said.
The cease-and-desist order does not accomplish much on the legal aspect of the situation, but it could influence other newspapers or news organizations in the state when it comes to halting stories or chilling reporting, Key said.
Russel also said he thinks the Republican governor’s actions are apart of the general push led by President Donald Trump to undermine the credibility of the press.
“We’ve been living under a president who, for the past three years daily, cries fake news and pushes back against important stories by claiming they were fabricated or had source problems or misinterpretations,” he said. “This president’s track record has spread confusion across the country and caused people to not know what is a true or fake story.”
Key said he wouldn’t connect Gov. Holcomb’s cease-and-desist letters with the President’s approach to the media because, in the cease-and-desist letters from the governor’s office, the important role of journalism is acknowledged while objecting to the particular story reported on by Reveal.
The cease-and-desist issued to the Star is the first issued by the governor’s office, according to Holcomb’s spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer in a report by the Journal Gazette.
Earlier this fall Julie Berry, a democratic candidate for mayor of Madison, Indiana, received a cease-and-desist letter from Holcomb’s state campaign committee.
According to the report, Berry paid to broadcast a 15-second ad about bipartisanship that pictured her and Holcomb at an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The campaign considered the photos misleading and gave a false impression that Holcomb endorsed her candidacy, the report said.
Russel, who has been a journalist for 35 years, said he has never seen a public figure issue a cease-and-desist letter once, let alone twice.
When cease-and-desist letters are sent by a public figure, it is to either intimate reporters or the party issuing the order doesn’t understand the breadth of the First Amendment, said Meg Tebo, a Chicago-based lawyer who has taught media and ethics to journalism students. In other cases, the move is the first step to challenging past court rulings
“Historically, for 50, 60 years ago the First Amendment has protected people’s right to cover stuff. Whether that is going to continue, in the current climate is anybody’s guess,” she said.
Since the Indiana Professional Chapter of SPJ published its open letter, it has received endorsements from the Chicago Headline Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. The Kokomo Tribune, a local newspaper in the state, also published the Indiana Professional Chapter’s open letter denouncing the governor’s cease-and-desist letters.
It is unlikely that this particular case between Gov. Holcomb, the IndyStar and Reveal will go to court and challenge First Amendment laws, but the current political climate is ripe for changes in federal laws because of the changing make-up of the courts, Tebo said.
Five years-ago, Tebo said she would have laughed at a cease-and-desist letter and assume the news organizations would go on publishing.
In today’s political climate Tebo’s more serious about the action.
“The cease-and-desist itself is a silly tactic in any other climate, but in this sense, it may, in fact, be an attempt to push something into court,” she said. “It might be, and that’s frightening.”
Amelia Blakely reported from Carbondale, Illinois, where she is a student at Southern Illinois University. You can find her on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.