Arizona judge overturns restraining order against journalist who dared to knock on a politician’s door

For a brief moment of time, a judge in Arizona conspired with a vindictive politician to pretend the First Amendment didn’t exist. Senator Wendy Rogers — who was censured by the state senate last year for stating her political opponents should be hanged — took litigious offense at the methods deployed by journalist Camryn Sanchez, who covers the state senate for the Arizona Capitol Times.
Sanchez wanted answers on Senator Rogers’ seemingly excessive travel expenses, something supposedly owed her because she had to drive many, many miles to get to (government) work. Rogers owns two houses, one apparently located much closer to the Senate building. Sanchez had valid questions. And, having been banned by a-far-too-cooperative senate from approaching Rogers at her desk, she tried to approach her at both of her homes.
Too much, said the fearless gun enthusiast and former military member. Senator Rogers approached the court and asked that Sanchez be forbidden from approaching her at either of her homes. This sort of dumbassery is to be expected from people that seemingly only revere the second-listed constitutional right. What was unexpected is that a court would overlook the first of these rights to make an already powerful person a bit more powerful.
Fortunately, that restraining order — unconsitutionally granted by Judge Amy Criddle late last month — has been struck down. The judge handling the journalist’s challenge of the order, Howard Grodman, said this was definitely a violation of the journalist’s First Amendment rights, even if it’s possible Rogers may have been upset by the appearance of a journalist at her multiple front doors.

Grodman, the justice of the peace, agreed, stating Sanchez’ conduct did not meet the standard of harassment
“The strongest point is investigative reporting is a legitimate purpose,” Grodman said.  
He acknowledged that he believes Rogers was genuinely alarmed when Sanchez showed up at her home but ultimately found the situation “would not cause a reasonable person to be annoyed or harassed.”   

So, all’s well that ends well? Maybe not. Seth Stern, the Director for Advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation agrees that it’s a win. But he wonders why this fight needed to happen at all. The First Amendment is not a novel idea, nor a recent introduction to US case law. Why do things like this keep happening? And, in particular, why did this thing happen, when there’s absolutely no precedential support for the decision made by Judge Amy Criddle.

Our U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has no prior record of a government official obtaining a restraining order against a journalist since it began documenting violations in 2017. The closest case involved a cosmetic surgeon in Los Angeles. A judge quickly dissolved his restraining order upon learning that he’d neglected to mention that the people he sought to restrain were Los Angeles Times reporters. She then ordered the surgeon to pay the Times’ legal fees.

As Stern points out, most judges (but obviously not all of them) would have recognized this violation of rights immediately. And even the judge that struck down the order suggested he might have ruled differently if Rogers’ homes had “no trespassing” signs posted in front of it. But public figures — especially public servants — have no innate right to violate the First Amendment rights of others simply because they’d prefer not to be bothered. But that seems to be what Senator Rogers and her lawyer believe. After the ruling was announced, her legal rep made an announcement of his own:

Fischbach, Rogers’ attorney, then notified all reporters in the room that the Senator did not want any of them visiting her property. 

Just more prior restraint. Except this one isn’t actually backed by anything but the implicit threat Rogers will seek more unconstitutional court orders if journalists violate this made-up-on-the-spot refusal to respect journalists or their newsgathering methods.
Coupled with the chain of events that proceeded this, the win kind of feels like a loss, as Stern explains:

Not to sound like a sore winner, but, despite Grodman’s correct ruling, the case laid bare the anti-press attitudes of far too many of our elected officials as well as the frequent disregard of the First Amendment by far too many judges. 

The Freedom of the Press Foundation isn’t really looking for steady employment. I’m sure it and the many people it advocates for would prefer to live in a world where its existence wasn’t a necessity. Political figures and journalists have always been in conflict. But the Constitution sets the rules for engagement. And it seems too many politicians feel enshrined rights should be subject to their personal feelings. What happened here — something that has never happened before — will happen again.

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