The job of an independent press isn’t to do the work of police for them.
It’s critical that the public understand that the press isn’t an arm of the law. The job of the press is to act as a watchdog on government agencies, including the police, to make sure a department doesn’t violate citizens’ rights and protects all citizens equally.
Yet you wouldn’t know that from the actions of Maui police and prosecutors. They issued a subpoena against the MauiTime weekly newspaper, attempting to force it to reveal the names of anonymous commenters and require it not to inform them that the police were looking for their identities.
Before a judge orders a newspaper to comply with a subpoena, law enforcement needs to show not only that something is critical to a case, but also that they have exhausted all other avenues to obtain the information.
It all began on April 15 when MauiTime published this story, which included included video footage of Maui PD Officer Nelson Johnson striking publisher Tommy Russo while trying to prevent Russo from filming both himself and the crew of Dog the Bounty Hunter in the Wailuku municipal parking lot.
Online comments, virtually all excoriating the Maui PD, flooded the MauiTime website. Then one commenter, using the moniker, “Federal Reserve,” wrote the following: “the MPD,, the ONLY reason I own a LARGE CALIBRE, high powered rifle. who needs criminals with this bunch of dog eating public menaces running around. Johnson needs a bullet when he walks out his door.”
A month later, two Maui Police Officers showed up at the MauiTime office in Wailuku and asked Russo for the IP address of the individual who wrote the above comment. Russo refused to provide that or any other IP address.
Then, in May, came the subpoena, and national attention to the case.
Finally, this week the Maui Police Department and prosecutor’s office came to their sentences and sent a letter to the paper’s lawyer saying the subpoena had been withdrawn.
Because, as they could — and should — have done before ever burdening the weekly newspaper with legal costs and wasting tax dollars on their own legal efforts, the police were able to identify the person who had posted the comment on the paper’s website that concerned them.
“We won,” Publisher Tommy Russo told me Friday.
He was talking about the newspaper. And he was right.
But the truth is that it was a victory for the people of Maui — and Hawaii.
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