That chilly fall Tuesday, Independent reporter John Dicker and yours truly strolled down to the human resources office at the City's administration building at 30 S. Nevada. After identifying ourselves, we asked to review the performance evaluations, salary history and a list of citations and other commendations of said officer Huddleston. It was the typical ho-hum public informationseeking excursion that reporters engage in while researching a story.
The helpful clerk behind the counter handed us a file and invited us to sit at a desk while we reviewed its contents. After a time, I departed, leaving Dicker to take some notes about Huddleston's job performance, including the disciplinary action against him that resulted in a 32-day suspension last year.
Approximately 45 minutes later, Dicker called the Independent, reporting that he had been escorted into the office of human resources director Ann Crossey. She informed him that the personnel file he had been looking at -- the one that her employee provided to us -- was off limits. With the phone on speaker mode, Crossey informed me that she was confiscating Dicker's notes.
Gee, last I checked, government officials cannot seize reporters' notes at whim. I reminded Crossey that these notes were the property of the Colorado Springs Independent. I then advised Dicker to retrieve his notebook and return to the office. Still on speakerphone, I heard a scuffle ensue, and Dicker informed me that he was being physically restrained from leaving Crossey's office.
Well, now, this is the kind of thing you see played out in the movies, or in communist China, but by our own city government? Given that the Independent's offices are half a block from the City's administrative building, I was down there in a flash.
There I found Dicker, who had been escorted like some kind of criminal to the city attorney's office by Crossey, Independent notebook clutched in her hand. Eventually, after I pointed out to Senior City Attorney Ginger Jeffrey that the City could not confiscate our notes nor illegally detain our reporter, Jeffrey let us go. Crossey looked cross as we parted her from our property.
The next day, the City of Colorado Springs served us with notice that they planned to sue the Independent in an attempt to prohibit us from publishing information that we had obtained from the personnel file they had provided to us. A court date was set for 8:30 a.m. last Friday, Nov. 8.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, bless their hearts, jumped right in. In a press release distributed to Colorado media outlets, and posted by the national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, ACLU cooperating attorney Steven Zansberg noted, "The gag order that Colorado Springs seeks in this case is the very essence of the censorship that the First Amendment forbids."
Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein concurred, pointing out that the Supreme Court has identified such prior restraints as "the most serious and least tolerable of the possible infringements on the right of free expression."
Zansberg filed a brilliant response to the City's claims, citing case law after case law backing us up.
Within hours, late last Thursday afternoon, we were informed that the City of Colorado Springs had withdrawn its lawsuit.
Now doesn't that just dang it. I already had laid out my next morning's outfit for Judge David Gilbert. The TV stations had alerted us of their plans to swarm the scene. Heck, even The Gazette and the Rocky Mountain News expressed serious interest. We were all ready to go to battle for the First Amendment.
Perhaps the City of Colorado Springs came to their senses, and realized that if anybody screwed up, it was them.
Just as likely, the City must have realized the downside of a high-profile lawsuit designed to suppress a newspaper from publishing information about a police officer whose activities they are already attempting to shield with a blue wall of silence. After all, who wants all that publicity?
So will we sue the City of Colorado Springs for theft of property and false detention of our reporter?
Probably not. The Independent is, after all, civic-minded. The City, for example, claims it's in the midst of painful budget cuts. One less lawsuit would certainly save some money.
Perhaps enough to give both Ann Crossey and Officer Huddleston nice raises this year.