Paducah Sun alleges intimidation by authorities over school threat letter

Paducah Sun | McCracken County Sheriff's Dept. | WPSD

"Monday and Tuesday were far from routine for The Paducah Sun," publisher Jim Paxton writes. The Kentucky paper's decision not to reveal the author of a letter alleging threatening behavior at a local high school to the sheriff's department caught the attention of media reporters but also of local authorities, who ordered Reidland High School and Middle School closed. Paxton faults the McCracken County Sheriff's Department for issuing a press release that "was at best disingenuous and at worst defamatory," Paxton writes. (The article is behind the Sun's paywall; Poynter paid $7.42 for one month of access to the paper.)

"The effect was as officials planned," Paxton writes.

People called to cancel subscriptions. Advertisers called threatening to pull out of our newspaper. Profane comments poured onto our Facebook page.

The paper was setting up a meeting between the authorities and its sources -- a teacher at Reidland High School who encouraged the still-anonymous student to write the letter to the newspaper, the student who wrote the letter and the student's parents -- when, Paxton says, "a sheriff’s detective showed up in our offices with grand jury subpoenas demanding that Executive Editor Duke Conover and yours truly appear in less than two hours before a grand jury along with the letter disclosing the identity of our source."

A subpoena would have actually absolved the paper of any responsibility to keep a source private if it didn't solicit the letter. Conover wouldn't comment on whether the paper solicited the source in a phone call with Poynter Tuesday. Paxton says the deputy engaged in a "show of belligerence" because he read "the subpoena to Conover in Conover’s office while Conover was engaged in a phone call."

The sheriff's department told Paxton it had already investigated the threats the teacher urged the student to write the paper about. "Why for instance, if the sheriff began investigating threats against the Reidland schools two weeks ago, did they wait until Tuesday to close the school and then blame the newspaper for the whole mess?" Paxton writes.

Just speculating here, but maybe because they didn't know who wrote the letter and there was a rather prominent school shooting in Connecticut last week and because a nearby high school was the site of a school shooting in 1997?

In a post on its Facebook page, the McCracken County Sheriff's Dept. says that investigation Paxton refers to took place Dec. 12 and "revealed ... that there was clearly no threat at all and what the students were talking about was a video game called 'Mine Craft' which involves placing bombs and blowing up buildings as a way of collecting points."

Paxton concludes, "A newspaper’s job is to report the news and raise hell. Apparently we did a pretty good job of that this week."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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