Acrimony in Akron

By: David Noack

A lawyer for the Akron, Ohio, police chief and his wife asserts that they would be justified in using “deadly force” against reporters for the Akron Beacon Journal who attempt to question them about allegations of domestic abuse.
In a three-page letter, dated May 24, to attorneys for the newspaper, Ed Gilbert, who is representing police chief Edward D. Irvine and his wife Geneva, accuses reporters of “stalking” the chief’s wife in an effort to get her to comment on allegations she made last fall that her husband hit her.
“It is obvious that the Beacon Journal employees are there to cause physical and mental injury. Therefore, as U.S. citizens, they are entitled to protect themselves,” writes Gilbert, who adds that if the paper pursues contacting the couple, “physical injury is imminent.”
The paper’s lawyer, Ronald S. Kopp, says that while the newspaper is not bound by the request to stop contacting the police chief’s wife, it will now “need to consider seriously the risks posed by your threat.” He also says if any force is used against reporters, he would consider Gilbert an accessory.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., is outraged by the threat: “I submit that this is a bullying and intimidation tactic, pure and simple, and is motivated by the desire to censor the press.”
This latest salvo comes on the heels of an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit filed against the paper by Gilbert, in which he accused reporters of harassment.
Newspaper executives deny the charge. They say they’ve only tried to contact the chief’s wife six times since late last year through routine reporting procedures.
Two weeks ago, Gilbert filed the invasion-of-privacy suit against the newspaper, seeking unspecified monetary damages, and he attempted to get a judge to issue a restraining order against the newspaper to keep reporters away from Geneva Irvine. Gilbert has dropped his bid for the restraining order, and a trial is scheduled for early August on the lawsuit. He maintains that the police chief’s wife does not have to speak to the reporters and that she is not a public person.
The ongoing controversy stems from the paper running an eight-part series from May 2 to May 9, examining how the police department handled an investigation into the abuse allegation. During an internal police investigation, Geneva Irvine recanted her abuse allegation, and the police found no wrongdoing.
Editor Janet Leach denies that the paper has harassed the police chief’s wife.
“I can tell you for certain that we did not harass her. We took normal and, I would say, not even extraordinary measures to contact someone who was a major part of the story for response, reaction, interview. I think that that is not only our right, but our responsibility, because she’s a part of the story and had every right to respond,” asserts Leach.
She says the paper first tried to contact Geneva Irvine in December, after the story broke. At the time, however, she says the paper was unaware that the chief’s wife had left town. The paper also tried to contact her three more times in March for the eight-part series and then twice just a few weeks ago when a reporter and photographer flew to Louisiana to see if they could talk to her at a relative’s house in Lake Charles.
In court papers, Gilbert alleges that Geneva Irvine was forced to leave the Akron area and go to Louisiana because she was being harassed by the newspaper.
Managing editor Glenn Guzzo says opponents of the paper are trying to make this a racial issue.
“They are saying that if the forces of evil succeed this time, it will be 40 years before there is another African-American police chief. So it’s really turned into something very unfortunate. Meanwhile, though, I think the paper is right in proceeding to do what it needs to do and try not to turn any attention to that kind of talk, but it’s difficult,” says Guzzo.
At a rally of the leadership of the city’s African-American community a week ago, speakers criticized the series and accused the paper of having a hidden agenda in trying to force the chief’s ouster. A Beacon Journal reporter and photographer were told to leave the gathering, which was held in a church, when some members wanted to have a private meeting to discuss strategy.
A campaign threatening to cancel newspaper subscriptions has also been started, with 30 form letters being sent to John Dotson, the publisher, expressing concern over the stories
?(Editor & Publisher Web
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 15, 1999)

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