Deputy DA Seiden attacks newspaper in attempt to have public record sealed; judge orders otherwise, citing First Amendment
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
TOPEKA — Douglas County District Judge Stacey Donovan says a prosecutor’s criticism of the Lawrence Journal-World raises First Amendment concerns and is “beneath the dignity” of the district attorney’s office.
Joshua Seiden, Douglas County deputy district attorney, had tried to persuade the judge to seal an affidavit in the arrest of a homeless man because he said the newspaper lacks integrity and is interested in clickbait.
Seiden’s argument is the latest attempt by government officials in Kansas to punish a news organization for publishing stories they don’t like. Last month, the Marion police chief raided the newsroom of the local newspaper, where journalists were investigating allegations of his misconduct.
In the Douglas County case, the Lawrence Journal-World requested the affidavit supporting the arrest of Tristen Hollins in a stabbing near a city-run homeless camp. Under state law, affidavits are public records unless the state can prove that the public interest would be served by keeping them sealed.
Seiden, in an Aug. 25 court filing, identified four provisions in state law that allow an affidavit to be sealed, but he provided no argument for why any of those provisions would apply. Instead, he asked the judge to consider the newspaper’s integrity.
“While the Lawrence Journal-World may claim that it requests this information because it is in the public interest, the sad reality is that the Lawrence Journal-World is a fledgling publication devoid of journalist integrity and constantly on the prowl for potential clickbait,” he wrote.
Donovan, the judge, ruled Friday that Seiden’s assertion was “unfounded.” She pointed out that state law allows any person to request an affidavit.
“Thus, the state’s position on whether the LJW meets the state’s standards for journalistic integrity is irrelevant to the analysis,” Donovan wrote. “It is, however, relevant to the purpose of the First Amendment — to protect against government actors deciding what news stories they find acceptable.”
The judge wrote that she would grant the newspaper’s request for the affidavit “because the disparaging remarks by the state regarding the LJW demonstrate that the LJW’s interest in the matter at hand is not being adequately represented.”
“The media functions as a watchdog that informs, as well as a forum that shares and promotes ideas and opinions for and among ordinary citizens,” Donovan wrote. “The state’s attempt to persuade this court to weigh the ‘journalistic integrity’ of the requester in deciding whether to seal the affidavit is disconcerting.”
The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office didn’t answer questions for this story, including whether Seiden has a different definition of “fledgling” than the dictionary. The newspaper began publishing in the 1850s.
Kansas Reflector also asked for Seiden’s credentials for evaluating the integrity of a news organization, examples of “clickbait” the Journal-World has published, and whether District Attorney Suzanne Valdez sees any concern with a government agency or official dictating whether information is newsworthy.
The office responded by providing a statement by Seiden: “While I stand by the legal basis in the motion, I accept the court’s ruling and apologize to anyone I offended.”
According to the affidavit signed by Lawrence police Det. Sean Crellin, police were called shortly after 11 a.m. Aug. 10 to Camp New Beginnings in north Lawrence, where Hollins was trespassing. Then, shortly before 1 a.m. Aug. 11, they were called to a report of a stabbing near the camp.
Bryan Griffin told police a man he didn’t know had followed him and stabbed him in the neck. Police found Hollins, who wasn’t wearing a shirt, on the bridge at 6th and Massachusetts streets. Nearby, they found a bloody knife wrapped in the shirt Hollins had been wearing earlier in the evening.
“Affidavits are critical for transparency in the judicial process,” said Chad Lawhorn, editor and publisher of the Lawrence Journal-World, in response to questions for this story. “Sometimes they are the only way we learn why an individual was arrested. For example, if a defendant waives their right to a preliminary hearing and then reaches a plea deal, it is quite possible there would never be a public airing of the allegations, if not for the release of an affidavit. Arresting someone is the height of government power. Such power is best accompanied by transparency.”
He said Seiden’s comments in his motion to seal the affidavit were “odd and inaccurate.”
“I found the court’s findings to be fair and favorable to the First Amendment and the protections it offers all of us,” Lawhorn said.
— Sherman Smith reports for Kansas Reflector.