Editor: Tenn. sheriff ordered background checks on journalists because of editorial

TENNESSEE — Members of MiddleTennessee State University’s student newspaper believe the county sheriffsubjected them to unwarranted criminal background checks after the paperpublished an editorial describing the county’s law enforcement as”the sheriff and his merry band of thugs.”Patrick Chinnery,editor of The Sidelines, said the general counsel for the RutherfordCounty Sheriff’s Office told him that background checks had been performedon all staff members listed in the paper’s staff box. Chinnery said that duringa conversation, the lawyer agreed to turn over the results of the backgroundchecks. Chinnery said he considers the background checks to be anattempt by Sheriff Truman Jones to intimidate the newspaper staff.The editorialboard wrote an editorial about media consolidation in the Feb. 18edition of the newspaper. The editorial expressed hope that Gannett Co.’s recent purchase of alocal newspaper would cause the paper to publish more hard-hitting coverage ofthe community and the sheriff’s office, which they described as a ”merryband of thugs.” Chinnery said the phrase was used to describe thesheriff’s office because it did not refer to any specific activity by thelaw enforcement officers, but ”gives an impression of theirbehavior.”Chinnery said the sheriff’s office has refused to cooperate with newspaper reporters who have requested public information.More than a week after the editorial ran,Chinnery received a letter from Edward Farmer, general counsel for thesheriff’s department, that stated the phrase was degrading and ”is adeliberate attempt to libel the sheriff and the 327 members” of thedepartment.In the letter, Farmer expressed concern that one of thenewspaper staff members was using his or her position on staff to ”furtherhis personal animosity of the sheriff’s office.” Farmer askedChinnery to contact him, ”so that this matter might be resolved withoutfurther legal action.” Chinnery said he called Farmer to discussthe situation and was told that the sheriff’s office was not interested inpursuing legal action against the newspaper staff. Chinnery said that during theconversation, he was told that Sidney McPhee, president of the Mufreesborouniversity, had contacted the sheriff’s department about the editorial andfaxed a copy of the editorial to the sheriff.Chinnery said Farmer alsotold him that the sheriff ordered background checks on everyone listed in thepaper’s staff box. ”This is when I really started gettingconcerned,” Chinnery said. He said that Farmer gave him details about thebackground checks and agreed to hand over the results. But that neverhappened.”We wrote our own article on this and gave a detailedchronology,” Chinnery said. According to the March 8Sidelines article, ”Farmer confirmed that he had a conversation withChinnery. He said that while he could not recall what was said during the call,he denied that Jones had ordered background checks.” Chinnerysaid the letter scared him when he first received it, but now believes it wasonly an intimidation attempt by the sheriff’s office.”Me andmy staff are pretty gung-ho journalists,” Chinnery said. ”We havethe ability to discern between libel and acceptable print. We aren’t goingto be cowed down by a sheriff’s department or anyone else who disagreeswith our opinions.”If anything,” Chinnery said, ”thismakes us want to do more investigative work.”Farmer and Jones did not respond to requests for comment.