Threat against journalists ‘horrendous,’ expert says

Public figures who threaten journalists are acting in a “horrendous” way, a Committee to Protect Journalists representative said.

Photo above: This photo of a man wearing a T-shirt at a 2016 Trump rally in Minnesota went viral on social media stating “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Twitter photo

By Natalie Beckerink, SizingUpTheSouth.com reporter, Auburn University

“Journalists should not have to be afraid or concerned about their physical safety, and it’s horrendous when public figures in the community threaten journalists for doing their work,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck,  North American program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Sizing Up The South contacted the independent nonprofit organization May 17 about supposed threatening remarks a visiting pastor made in March in Greenville, South Carolina. Photo right: Alexandra Ellerbeck, North American program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. LinkedIn photo

The remarks followed a series of investigative stories in The Greenville News about finances at Relentless Church in Greenville.

The Rev. Hope Carpenter, a visiting pastor at Relentless Church,  made the remarks March 31. The Washington Post wrote about the incident and MSN.com posted a video of it.

Rev. Hope Carpenter is a former co-pastor the Redemption Church, now called Relentless Church in Greeville, SC. It is also called the the Redemption Outreach Center. Wiki photos

“I cut people,” Carpenter said in the video. “I got a knife right in that pocketbook. Greenville News, come on.”

Rev. Hope Carpenter, former co-pastor of Redemption Outreach Center and Relentless Church, Greenville, SC

It is normal for journalists to get negative feedback, but there is a line that can be crossed, Ellerbeck said.

“It’s one thing to criticize reporting or push back, but it’s always inappropriate, or an attack on the First Amendment, to threaten physical harm,” she said.

Newspapers have a First Amendment right to cover stories of importance to the community, said David Baxley,SPJ South Carolina chapter president. Photo right: David Baxley Supplied photo

“Uncovering possible wrongdoing and questioning those in authority — yes, even pastors — is the responsibility of journalists,” Baxley said.

The Greenville News, like all reputable news organizations, takes great care in ethically reporting information. Intimidation will not stop journalists from uncovering the truth.”

David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina president

First Amendment rights do not always protect verbal threats,  but how broad those rights are is something that is often a question for a judge or a jury, said Thomas Mihill, an attorney at Owen Gleaton law firm in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo right: Thomas Mihill, attorney LinkedIn photo

“There are certain legal limits on your first amendment rights, but how broad they are is something that is often a question for a judge or a jury,” Mihill said. “There are certainly places where there are limitations on those. Threats aren’t necessarily protected.

Fighting words, defamation or slander aren’t necessarily protected. What any of those things are is often a question of fact.”

Thomas Mihill

Every situation is different, Ellerbeck said. The severity of a threat depends on several factors such as proximity to the person threatened, access and whether someone is taking action. Due to the climate of hostility, public figures especially need to be careful when speaking out, she said.

“It’s so important for these public figures to not engage in rhetoric that encourages violence against the media.”

Alexandra Ellerbeck, North American program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists

The Greenville News did not respond to phone calls or emails for this story.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has not heard of another church threatening a news outlet, but it is probably something that happens frequently without media attention, Ellerbeck said.

“I would be hesitant to say this is something new. It may be that we just haven’t heard of it,” Ellerbeck said. “We cover the whole world, so we don’t hear close to every threat that journalists face.”

Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.co

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