The ability of a news organization to investigate stories and break news depends in no small part in that organization’s relationships with its sources. A source with information to share but who can’t be identified for fear of reprisal has to be secure in knowing their identity will be kept confidential by the news organization, and they have to be secure in knowing the information they share will be treated seriously. That means the organization will vet the information – question it, turn it inside out and seek comment from all sides involved – before publishing or broadcasting it.
The Weekly doesn’t do gotcha. If we’re writing about you or your organization, you’re going to know before it happens.
So it was that on Aug. 9, a manila envelope dropped on my doorstep containing documents centering on the June 16 firing of Greenfield City Manager Jaime Fontes. (Hint to other would-be tipsters: You can always send us stuff, confidentiality guaranteed, via snail mail at the Weekly.)
The packet included a claim Fontes made against the city as a precursor to a lawsuit, and memos that Lozano Smith, the law firm that acts as Greenfield’s city attorney, sent to the City Council cautioning them about overstepping their authority by seeking to do performance evaluations of city employees who report directly to the city manager. It also included a handwritten note from Councilman Lance Walker, who, as part of Fontes’ performance evaluation in April, urged Fontes to fire Greenfield Community Service Director Mic Steinmann – a request outside the scope of Walker’s authority.
Editor Sara Rubin was working on a Greenfield story, centering on Fontes’ claim for wrongful termination, but Interim City Manager Paul Wood didn’t send it to her. I pulled the envelope out of my bag, handed it to Rubin and said, “It’s all in here.”
Rubin did her due diligence, calling or emailing Wood, Mayor Jesus OlveraGarcia and Walker. All were informed about the story she was working on, and about the documents we had obtained. On the morning of Aug. 15, she called Travis Cochran of Lozano Smith to let him know what his clients hadn’t – we had documents and were publishing the story that evening.
Within a few hours, Cochran sent us a cease-and-desist order demanding that we not use or publish their documents. His office would be contacting the District Attorney’s Office, he wrote, to determine if the person who gave us the documents broke the law, and he asked us to identify the source. We enjoyed a good laugh at that and moved on with the day.
By that evening, he went to court, seeking a temporary restraining order that would prohibit us from publishing the law firm’s memos. The next morning, with only 45 minutes to brief our attorney, the Weekly was dragged into court.
Greenfield’s ask of Monterey Superior Court Judge Marla Anderson: That the Weekly be prohibited from publishing any other documents we may possess. But Cochran couldn’t identify what else we might have.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg issue,” Cochran said. “Without knowing what the documents are, it’s kind of hard to define what they are.”
As Weekly attorney Kelly Aviles argued, such a ruling would be prior restraint and flies in the face of our First Amendment rights to publish information a government agency doesn’t want it to. She argued that journalists in California, evidenced by a number of cases ruled on by the state appellate and Supreme Court, have broad protection to do their job in reporting the public’s interest.
Anderson declined to issue a temporary restraining order – a victory for the Weekly – but the situation is not over. The Weekly will go back to court on Sept. 7 to fight against Greenfield’s request for a permanent injunction on us publishing any other documents we possess. Aviles has filed an anti-SLAPP motion – that’s Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – arguing Greenfield’s suit is a bullying tactic that violates our protected rights to gather and disseminate news. The anti-SLAPP statute exists for moments like these, when those in power drag their critics into court in an attempt to silence them.
Our ask is that the judge order Greenfield to pay Aviles’ fees.