Even in a new town, with new friends and new stories, 12-year-old crime reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak knew her rights. And when she was pursuing a story in the small town of Patagonia, Ariz., a few weeks ago, she stood firm and shot video of the town police chief telling her, “If you put my face on the internet, it’s against the law.”
Then things got weird.
The national news media picked up on the story. The town, population 920, and the police chief received plenty of feedback on the video posted by Hilde on her website, the Orange County News. The chief, Marshal Joseph Patterson, told the Associated Press he’d received death threats. The town then posted a statement saying it had “taken action we believe to be appropriate for the situation” and wouldn’t comment further on “personnel actions.”
Then the town added this: “Please see ARS 13-2401 for relevant information.” ARS 13-2401 is the Arizona law that makes it a Class 5 felony to post personal information about a police officer on the internet if it poses a threat. A Class 5 felony carries a two-year prison sentence in Arizona.
The Lysiak family was taken aback. Was the town threatening to arrest the young journalist and book author? They waited for several days. Then Hilde’s mom, Bridget Reddan, reached out to the town’s mayor, Andrea Wood. And at the Patagonia town council meeting on a recent Wednesday night, Wood read a full and unhesitant apology into the record.
“The governing body for the town of Patagonia would like to apologize for the First Amendment rights violation inflicted upon Hilde Lysiak, a young reporter in our community,” Wood said. “We are sorry, Hilde. We encourage and respect your continued aspiration as a successful reporter. We believe and fully support the constitutional right to freedom of speech in the public sector.”
And they removed the reference to the Class 5 felony from the town website.
Hilde and her family are thrilled. She wrote a statement the next day, then flew off to Florida to make a speech at a book signing. She, with help from her father, author Matt Lysiak, has written five books for Scholastic about being a young crime reporter and solving cases in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., where the Orange Street News was created. The family is staying temporarily in Patagonia, about 20 miles north of the Mexico border, to give Hilde and her three siblings new experiences in another part of the country.
“I’m just glad this is behind me,” Hilde said, “and I’m very thankful to the town of Patagonia, especially the mayor and town council. This wasn’t just about me. It was important. I was worried about the First Amendment rights of journalists, and every other citizen in town, especially those who, unlike me, don’t have a microphone.”
Wood and Patterson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Neither Hilde nor her father will say what story she was pursuing Feb. 18 when she got into her dispute with Patterson. Legal and police experts said it is well established that members of the public may film or photograph police officers performing their duties in public. Hilde knew that. And so, apparently, did the Patagonia town council.
“Now that I believe my rights are protected,” Hilde said, “I can move forward with covering the news. That is all I want to do.”