The Malheur Enterprise, a newspaper in eastern Oregon, spent months investigating a state lawmaker’s business deals and contract work in Malheur County. The county wants to investigate the newspaper for harassment, saying reporters made too many phone calls and sent too many emails, the Washington Post reports. Malheur County’s legal counsel asked the sheriff to investigate whether reporters’ persistent attempts to contact officials, sometimes after business hours or using their personal email accounts, amounted to a violation of the law. State Rep. Greg Smith, the Republican at the center of the journalists’ investigation, who also serves as director of Malheur County Economic Development, told the newspaper, “It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends.” He asked “to not have our employees contacted outside of their work place.” Editor and publisher Les Zaitz, said reporters were only trying to do their jobs.
“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” said Zaitz. Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe cited Oregon’s “telephonic harassment” criminal statute, which says a crime has been committed if a caller “intentionally harasses or annoys another person” at a number they have been forbidden to use. Kyu Ho Youm, a University of Oregon communications law professor, called Malheur County’s request to the sheriff for an investigation a “remarkable abuse” of the law. “They’re undoubtedly overreaching their boundaries as government officials and criminalizing ordinary phone calls and emails that are a part of news reporting,” he said.