Friday, February 22, 2008

Commissar ... err ... Sheriff Joe faces lawsuit over attack on press

Remember when Arizona's headline-chasing Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an embarrassing fixture in Maricopa County, decided to escalate his long-running feud with the Phoenix New Times by arresting newspaper executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin? Lacey and Larkin were released, of course, and Dennis Wilenchik, the special prosecutor in the case was fired. As you might guess, that didn't quite end the matter.

Now, the New Times has filed a Notice of Claim, a preliminary step before a lawsuit, against Arpaio, Wilenchik and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

The Arizona Republic has a brief Q&A with Lacey about the lawsuit and the New Times' contentious relationship with Maricopa County's ruling junta. Here's a highlight:

Question: In the case of your arrest, it's more than just arresting a citizen. There's a First Amendment, freedom-of-the-press issue.

Answer: The First Amendment on a number of levels: It isn't simply my First Amendment right to write a story without fear of incarceration, it's the right of all of our readers to read our newspaper without fear that their records are going to be gone through on the Internet.

The critical question is: How do they get to the point where they believe that they have the right to arrest journalists in the middle of the night and subpoena the identity of the people that read our newspaper? They didn't get there overnight. They began by abusing prisoners, and there was a staircase escalation where they were never stopped. They're attacking judges, they're attacking editors, they're attacking writers. And by the time they get to attacking the First Amendment rights of readers of newspapers, it never occurs to them, because as Joe Arpaio says, "Hey, lock them all up until they prove they're innocent."

Incidentally, County Attorney Thomas, a key Arpaio ally, has a long-standing history of ideological discomfort with rights-focused individualism in general and libertarianism in particular. Reason magazine once quoted a 1996 Thomas contribution to the Weekly Standard (not available online) in which the future county attorney referred to street crime and social unrest as "the libertarian-created problems of Southern California and elsewhere." On another occasion, Thomas wrote in the Standard that "The root of our crime problem is a rights-happy radical individualism."

So, I guess we have no call to be shocked at how Arpaio, Thomas and company have assaulted individual freedom once in office. To anybody paying attention, Thomas telegraphed those punches.

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