Skip to comments.Unfair Firing for 'Miami Herald' Columnist Who Taped Interview? [RE Teele suicide in Miami]
Posted on 07/29/2005 11:42:02 AM PDT by summer
NEW YORK The firing of a Miami Herald columnist for secretly taping a phone conversation with a county commissioner minutes before the public official's suicide in the newspaper's lobby has raised questions about whether his actions constitute a fireable offense.
Although Florida law prohibits the taping of anyone's phone conversation without their consent, legal experts differ over how that might apply to a reporter. Herald staffers, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the columnist, Jim DeFede, might have been fired too quickly by editors who were responding under duress from the suicide.
Strictly interpreted, the law seems to indicate that DeFede committed an illegal act. "All parties must consent to the recording or the disclosure of the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication in Florida," reads a copy of the Florida statute provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Recording or disclosing without the consent of all parties is a felony," unless it is a first offense, in which case it is a misdemeanor.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, noted that Florida is one of only about a dozen states that require two-party consent. Still, she stressed that the law is clear and, if a paper's policy bars such taping, it is a fireable offense. "In a lot of newsrooms, this is the norm," she said about the firing for an illegal act.
But Sandy Baron, an attorney and executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, said the fact that the taping was part of an interview could be a partial defense for the reporter. "A public official who knowingly talks to a reporter on the record has no reasonable expectation of privacy," she said. "It may be different if a public official says he is off the record or has said he does not want to be taped. But, people who talk to reporters are not having a private conversation."
The Florida statute includes a provision that says, "consent is not required for the taping" of someone "who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy."
Speculation about the law has been raised by the Wednesday firing of DeFede, who lost his job during one of the most tragic and bizarre days in the paper's history. The incidents began when former county commissioner Arthur E. Teele, Jr., shot himself to death in the newspaper's lobby, shortly after speaking with DeFede in a telephone interview.
Teele's suicide came just days after he had been arraigned on corruption charges and on the same day a scathing report in the alternative weekly Miami New Times was published outlining lewd details of Teele's alleged interaction with male prostitutes.
Following the suicide, DeFede told editors he had been interviewing Teele earlier in the day and had recorded part of the conversation without his consent, the Herald reported.
"As Teele was becoming unglued [on the phone], I turned on a tape recorder because I could tell that he was distraught and bouncing off the walls," DeFede was quoted in the Herald as saying. "I made an illegal tape and the company decided to fire me."
DeFede later issued a statement that said, "In a tense situation I made a mistake. The Miami Herald executives only learned about it because I came to them and admitted it. I told them I was willing to accept a suspension and apologize both to the newsroom and our readers. Unfortunately, the Herald decided on the death penalty instead."
Al Tompkins, an instructor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., agreed that reporters should be disciplined for breaking the law. But he pointed out that the paper should have a clear policy on such issues. "This is an issue that newsrooms talk about or should talk about a lot," he told E&P. "Where and how we record when the other person doesn't know."
Tompkins stressed that no policy should absolutely prohibit taping without consent. But, he said, it is important to make clear what the rules are and how they are interpreted. "There may be reasons for newsrooms to use deception," he said. "There will be circumstances when a story is of overwhelming importance that there may be no other way. I would not recommend that a newsroom say, 'we don't tape.'"
It is not known what, if any, policy the Herald follows regarding telephone recordings. Executive Editor Tom Fiedler and Publisher Jesus Diaz did not return calls seeking comment.
Fielder issued a statement Wednesday on the firing, which said in part, "I am personally heartsick about this. But we must hold ourselves to the highest standard of integrity if we are to maintain the trust of our readers and those with whom we deal."
Newsroom staffers declined to comment on the record, but several who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were surprised that DeFede was fired so abruptly.
"People were stunned and wondered why he had to be fired," said one reporter. Another noted that the mix of the suicide and firing created an atmosphere of anger and concern. "I think there is a level of distress with the speed [of the firing] and people haven't figured out whether the punishment fit the crime."
One Herald editor who requested anonymity said many questions about the suicide and DeFede's firing remained unanswered Thursday. "The classic question is, 'we understand the crime, but is the punishment just?'" the editor said. "People are puzzled and feeling surprised that they wouldn't back this guy up."
Someone has even created a Web site aimed at defending the fired scribe, www.journalistsfordefede. The site includes an open letter to Diaz and asks supporters to add their names.
DeFede had a long-running relationship with Teele, according to the Herald. He even wrote a column that defended the troubled politician last year after Teele was charged with threatening
New Mimai Times. = New Miami Times
Let the rest of hte reporters resign in protest.
err, um, Miami New Times :)
I'm no 'legal expert' but if they are a citizen of Florida, they are not exempt.
Realistically, I don't think there's any conversation with a journalist that involves an expectation of privacy, especially those famous 'off the record' conversations!
Thank you! I always mix that up.
I don't know - this Teele was under investigation, he is a public official, and he's talking on the phone with a reporter - I'm not sure how much "privacy" Teele could reasonably be expect in such a circumstance. I think the subject FL law actually protects Defede in this instance, though I am not a lawyer.
Yeah, Karl Rove discovered thar , didn't he?
LOL...I read your post so quickly, I didn't realize that I agree with you!! :)
Re your post #6 - you're the one I meant to ping to my post #9!
But Reporters are Above The Law, because their job is a "calling", and therefore being professional witnesses for history, they should not be subjected to that law. This is why they shoudl be allowed to wander battlefields without regard for safety, because all should recognise they are superior to the mere troops who are in battle.
In most states it is legal to record a conversation if at least one party is aware of it. (IANAL, standard disclaimers, etc.)
I could see that but if Teele asked to be 'off the record' and was still recorded?... I need to know more about this..
No, I think this case, if it becomes a cse, might turn on the question of Teele's having or not having any expectation of privacy, and IMI, "privacy" for that guy, in his particular circumstances, is a very hard sell.
Re your post #16 - That is a good point.
It's against the law to tape a conversation without the express knowledge of both parties.
Franky, I don't care what he wrote, he broke the trust and the law.
But actually - it's no point. Because DeFede did NOT tell Telle. That's why Defede was fired. (Defede told his bosses what he did.)
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