Since When Is News a Crime? : A chilling attack on the First Amendment in Cincinnati

Cincinnati must be one sleepy hamlet come summertime. While crime continued unabated in other big cities, Cincinnati cops and prosecutors kept themselves busy last month poring over records of telephone calls made by and to Wall Street Journal reporter Alecia Swasy.

Swasy's alleged offense? In June she reported on personnel and organizational changes in the offing at Cincinnati's corporate giant Procter & Gamble.

That's hardly unusual fodder for a reporter. This sort of news--who's being fired, which division may soon be sold--is the bread and butter of business reporting.

But P&G;, maker of Charmin toilet paper, Crest toothpaste and dozens of other personal care, cleaning and food products, didn't see it that way.

Furious that some current and former employees apparently spoke to Swasy, P&G; secretly went after the Journal under an Ohio law that makes "conversion of trade secrets" a felony.

P&G; complained to Cincinnati police, who went to the Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor's office.

The prosecutor obtained a grand jury subpoena directing Cincinnati Bell Inc. to turn over the records of "all 513 area code numbers" from which Swasy's home or office were dialed between March 1 and June 15. As a result, the phone company surveyed 655,000 lines and 35 million toll calls.

Ohio law protects journalists from having to disclose sources, but because law enforcement moved secretly in this case the Journal had no opportunity to invoke the shield law to quash the investigation.

But once the Journal got wind of this nasty witch hunt, P&G; began to backtrack, relying on a lesser misdemeanor statute involving breach of confidence by employees.

Cincinnati officials now claim the investigation is "winding down," and a P&G; spokesman said it appears unlikely that any criminal charges will be filed.

But what is most unlikely--and outrageous--is that Cincinnati law enforcement officials would carry out this ludicrous and massive invasion of privacy.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World