Journalists can be annoying.

Might as well concede that from the start.

We ask questions that people sometimes would prefer not to answer.

Often these people work for the government or otherwise receive public dollars.

But the notion that querying public officials could even conceivably constitute a crime is so antithetical to America’s commitment to constitutionally enshrined press freedom that a reasonable person might well assume it’s part of a fictional plot rather than reality.

Not so in Malheur County.

The county’s attorney, Stephanie Williams, recently asked Malheur Sheriff Brian Wolfe to determine whether phone calls and emails from journalists at the Malheur Enterprise in Vale to economic development officials, contacts that happened outside regular business hours, could meet the legal definition of harassment.

Wolfe told The Associated Press that neither the calls nor the emails “comes close” to a crime.

This hardly qualifies as a relief.

Of course it’s not a crime for a journalist to phone or email a public official.

And it’s equally obvious that the First Amendment is silent on the matter of regular business hours.

Williams’ request that Wolfe investigate journalists’ legitimate work is obnoxious on its face. But the episode is even more perplexing, and troubling, because the Enterprise’s efforts to get comments from Greg Smith, who contracts with Malheur County for economic development work (and until July 1 had a similar contract with Baker County), were such a fundamental, even banal, part of responsible journalism.

This wasn’t a case of photographers and videographers congregating on the sidewalk in front of some embattled politician’s home.

That’s equally protected under the U.S. Constitution, to be sure.

But it’s likely that most people, were they told that a sheriff had checked up on journalists’ activities, would imagine some sort of high-profile melee rather than a reporter making phone calls and sending emails seeking comment on a pending story.

It seems improbable that the Malheur County fiasco will embolden government officials elsewhere to follow Williams’ lead.

Whatever their feelings about journalists, they should be familiar enough with the First Amendment to recognize that siccing a sheriff on a newspaper not only is futile, but that it also comes closer to harassment than asking questions does.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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