A contemptible charge

By: Joe Strupp

Press rights may be wronged in Santa Cruz case

Press-rights advocates say that the pending contempt-of-court charge against a California reporter who revealed details of a case being heard in Juvenile Court could hurt the future ability of reporters to gather news.
“It would be a major blow and have a chilling effect on our essential news gathering process,” says Tim Graham, president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists who commented on the case involving a Santa Cruz County Sentinel writer. “I hope it is just an isolated case.”
The case centers around reporter Robin Musitelli, who was charged with contempt of court after revealing the information in a story about an infant taken from her parents and placed in foster care. A Santa Cruz County Juvenile Court judge began a hearing on the contempt charge July 30. As of E&P’s press time, no decision had been made by the judge about whether to uphold the charge, and none is expected until this coming week.
“It’s bad enough when a parent cannot tell the public under pain of contempt that the government has taken away his child,” says Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. “But when a newspaper cannot report that fact, then the First Amendment is really being challenged.”
Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Akao issued the civil contempt-of-court charge July 9 against Musitelli, the Sentinel, and the infant’s father, Mark Mendez. If either Musitelli or Mendez is found in contempt, the sentence could be up to five days in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.
“I’d be willing to [go to jail], but I don’t think it will happen,” says Musitelli. “It seems like quite a stretch.”
Akao declined to comment on the contempt charge, her spokesman says.
The case stems from a story written by Musitelli and published in the Sentinel June 24. The article described the ordeal that Mendez and the infant’s mother, Rhonda Mastropaolo, went through when their child was taken from their custody and placed in foster care shortly after her birth May 11. The baby’s father claims in the story that the county Child Protective Services lied to court officials that the infant had been born heroin-addicted and had been receiving methadone injections.
The infant’s father says the baby had been born with methadone in her system because her mother had been taking the drug for a knee problem. He acknowledges that the mother had taken drugs in the past, but says she has not used heroin for several years.
After the story ran, Akao issued the contempt charge, claiming the paper had published information about the case from court records, which is prohibited in juvenile cases.
Sentinel editor Tom Honig, who has worked at the newspaper since 1972, says he was amazed that such a charge could be issued. “I’m absolutely incredulous,” says Honig, who took the editor’s post in 1992. “Something is way off with this action and how it relates to the First Amendment. Any government that finds us in contempt for publishing information we find seems to fly in the face of freedom of the press.”
Attorney John Gallagher, who has represented the newspaper for 10 years, also sees no basis for a contempt charge. “It’s totally permissible for a news organization to use typical investigative techniques, such as interviews, to gather information,” he says. “I think juvenile courts are particularly sensitive, but I don’t think contempt under these circumstances is justifiable.”
Honig and Gallagher would not comment on whether the newspaper had obtained copies of court records or if the information from such records had been received in other ways, such as through interviews or second-hand knowledge. Honig says the newspaper sought to respect the anonymity of the infant and did not print the child’s name in the original story.
Musitelli says she is surprised by a such a reaction from the court since the majority of her story came from the child’s parents. “The whole reason for confidentiality is to protect the parents,” she says. “But they were the ones who walked in with the story.”
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