Reporter Ordered to Surrender His Notebook

Can't bring himself to "bowl over" supervisor

To prevent the imminent seizure of his notebook, should a reporter: A) plow over a 50-year-old woman obstructing his path to freedom or B) scream like a schoolboy?

An hour before I faced this decision, my editor, Cara DeGette, had escorted me to the Colorado Springs Human Resources Office to show me how to access evaluations, salaries and other information about city employees. We were investigating a detective who had allegedly offered to purge the records of a local transsexual in exchange for a “sexual massage.”

We hit pay dirt when a na├»ve clerk handed us the unexpurgated version of the officer’s personnel file. Cara and I pored over the file for a half-hour or so, delighting as our story began to ooze from the pages.

Ten minutes after Cara left, I’d taken four pages of notes, though I still had another hour of scribbling ahead of me. A HR employee back from her lunch break inquired if I needed any copies made.

“What service!” I thought, as I deferred the offer until I finished my note taking.

“Are you a supervisor?” she asked me. “No,” I said. “I’m a reporter with the Independent.”

Five minutes later a stout HR director and her flunky towered over me and demanded I surrender my notes. I was told that I’d been given the files in error, that the woman at the front desk was a temp. According to the HR director, under the Colorado Open Records Act, I was not entitled to the information I’d spent the last 40 minutes looking at.

I refused to fork over my notebook, suspicious of her claim, but quite certain of the reaming I’d receive from Cara if I turned it over without a fight. We agreed to leave my notebook on a desk in the HR file room, while I made a conference call to Cara from the HR director’s office.

Leaving the notebook was pretty stupid, yes. But cut me some slack, it was my first month on the job.

Significantly more up to snuff on issues pertaining to journalistic access, Cara refused to acquiesce to the demands of the HR boss and instructed me to retrieve my notes and return to the office immediately. With Cara still on speaker, I moved for the door. The HR director stepped directly in front of me, while her flunky bolted out the door to seize my notes. Perhaps these two played basketball together ? their move was a textbook pick and roll.

I did consider bowling her over, but this woman was big, more linebacker than power forward. Call me an effete East Coast twit, but I just couldn’t manage it. Instead I shouted to Cara, still on speaker, “I’m being physically restrained! They’re taking my notebook!”

Cara sprung into her cape and unitard and bolted down to City Hall.

Meanwhile I had followed my notebook to the city attorney’s office, smart enough not to leave its side, but not bold enough to wrestle it out of enemy hands.

And then the lawyers got involved.

The upshot was that the city issued an injunction prohibiting us from publishing any of the information from my notes. We scored representation from the ACLU of Colorado. The day before our scheduled hearing, 10 days after the initial incident, the Colorado ACLU issued a press release about the hearing.

Within an hour, our office had received calls from all the major local television stations. By 4:30 p.m., the city announced it was withdrawing the injunction. Faced with a media maelstrom, the city’s lawyers likely realized that not only would the publicity be less than flattering , but it would draw attention to the information they aimed to suppress.

I now know that verbally refusing to surrender your notebook isn’t enough. Next time, it won’t leave my sight. Next time it will be chained it to my neck.

John Dicker is a staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent.