After A Voice Recorder Was Brought Into Court, A Rockingham Journalist Was Put in Jail — And He Could Go Back
Most battles over press freedom revolve around Washington D.C., over controversies like journalists allegedly being under surveillance by the Justice Department.
This case takes place in Rockingham, 90 minutes east of Charlotte, at The Richmond County Daily Journal. The newspaper publishes two days a week and has only a couple of reporters. It shares a small building with a copying and printing store.
Brian Bloom, the publisher since 2019, has big expectations.
“I sat down with them and said the last Pulitzer Prize was won by a newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, that had three people,” Bloom said during a recent interview in his office. “A father and two sons. Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t be good.”
While Bloom wanted to be known for investigative reporting, his small paper has made national news for a different reason.
In early 2020, the news editor, Gavin Stone, was reprimanded by a judge for taking a cellphone photo in court.
About 18 months later, Stone assigned rookie reporter Matthew Slasser to cover a murder trial. The publisher said Stone remembered the ban on cellphones, but mistakenly thought Slasser could bring a voice recorder inside the courtroom to help his notetaking.
Bloom said a bailiff saw Slasser’s recorder and told Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell, who is not the same judge who reprimanded Stone for the photo.
“The judge ordered, ‘Stop the murder trial’ and told Matthew that he needed to leave the courtroom and take the recorder with him, which Matthew did,” Bloom said. “And he came back here fairly shaken but not overly so.”
Superior Court rules generally allow electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings, but media outlets often have to ask for permission first. And judges can choose to prohibit the technology.
Later that day, the newspaper got a call from a bailiff, summoning Stone and Slasser. They thought it would be an informal discussion with Futrell about what happened, Bloom said.
“And instead of meeting in chambers and without anybody’s knowledge (the judge) had convened a hearing,” Bloom said.
He said the two staff members asked if they need a lawyer, and were told no.
Then Futrell fined Slasser $500 for criminal contempt of court. Stone was sentenced to five days in jail.
Bloom said the reporter made a mistake, but he said jailing the news editor went too far. At the appeal, Bloom said Futrell was angry.
“When I went for the appeal hearing (he) was a man who was spewing anger, literally spitting anger, making comments that were completely inappropriate and without any basis of fact,” Bloom said. “And he was adamant he was going to get his inch of flesh.”
Bloom said Stone and Slasser are not doing interviews. WFAE couldn’t reach Futrell, who has also declined to comment for other media outlets.
Stone was released from jail after a day, but the case is pending. The Stanly County district attorney is now handling the case and a court date is set for later this month.
Sarah Matthews, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the Richmond County case is unusual — but not unprecedented.
“It stands out in the sense that an editor who wasn’t even the one making the recording was jailed,” she said. “That’s how this is quite unusual.”
In 2018, freelance journalist Zachary Siegel was arrested while covering the murder trial of a Chicago police officer in the shooting of Laquan McDonald. The judge said he had recorded part of the trial.
Matthews said the Richmond County case is troubling.
“And also I would say just the immediate sentencing was pretty harsh and excessive,” Matthews said.
Futrell was appointed to the bench Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018.
Last month, Bryan Anderson from the Associated Press asked Cooper whether he’s concerned about the judge’s actions.
“I’m curious if you plan on reporting that to the judicial standards commission?” Anderson asked during a news conference. “We asked your office a couple of weeks ago and we’re still looking for a comment from you.”
The case has received national attention, but Cooper said he didn’t know about it.
“I don’t know the situation involving that,” Cooper said. “I know that our courts should be as open as possible, but I do know that the court has certain rules it can implement.”
Anderson asked whether the governor would encourage courts to be more open. Cooper said. “that’s something we would have to discuss with members of the bar and others.”
Bloom said he hopes the issue will be dropped later this month.
But he’s worried. He said Futrell refiled the charges and that both men could face $500 fines and 60 days in jail.
After Stone was arrested, the newspaper stopped reporting on the trial. It also hasn’t written its own story about the arrest.