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., last week, 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 Street News. The chief, Marshal Joseph Patterson, told the Associated Press he had 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 which makes it a Class 5 felony to post personal information of 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, and then Hilde’s mom, Bridget Reddan, reached out to town Mayor Andrea Wood. And at the Patagonia town council meeting 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 early Thursday, then flew off to Florida to make a speech at a book signing. She, with help from her father, author Matthew Lysiak, has written six 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 Marshal Patterson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Hilde has been reporting for her self-published Orange Street News since she was 8. When she was 9, she heard of a possible homicide in her town, biked over to it, and posted both stories and video on her website before the mainstream media. When some people in the town were critical of a 9-year-old reporting on homicide, they sent her nasty notes and emails. Hilde responded with a video saying, basically, if you don’t like it, do it yourself. When The Washington Post posted the video, things took off, ultimately leading to both a book deal with Scholastic and a proposed television series.
But Hilde has stayed grounded, her father said. She doesn’t read the stories about herself. She just keeps plugging away, reporting the news in the apparently somewhat mean streets of Selinsgrove, judging by recent stories in the Orange Street News ["NOTE TO DEALERS: OSN Will Not Be Intimidated. Drug Investigations Will Continue" is one story, and that came immediately after "Man Charged After Allegedly Menacing Grove Woman."]
Matthew Lysiak moved his family from New York, where he was a reporter for the New York Daily News, to Selinsgrove, where they opened a bed-and-breakfast. But in their travels, they had visited and loved Patagonia, and the four kids — Hilde, older sister Izzy and two younger siblings — and a dog are staying in a modified trailer there, Lysiak said.
The encounter with Marshal Patterson was not Hilde’s first since she began working the beat in Patagonia, and she’d had plenty of experience with cops in Selinsgrove. When the police there came down on her hard two years ago, “I told her to take it as a real compliment,” Lysiak said. “They’re treating you like a real reporter.”
Neither Hilde nor Lysiak will say what story she was pursuing on Feb. 18, when she got into her dispute with Patterson. Journalists don’t talk about their stories before they’re published, especially with other journalists. But Patterson clearly felt that Hilde was following him and wanted her to stop. Hilde pushed back. The chief apparently threatened to take Hilde “to juvey” (juvenile detention) and said that he didn’t want to hear any First Amendment talk, but that wasn’t recorded on tape. In a separate interaction that was taped, Patterson tells Hilde she has lied to him, disobeyed a direct order not to follow him and that he was “looking out for your safety.” A mountain lion was reported in the area, Patterson said.
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.
“We will not tolerate bias of any kind,” Mayor Wood said, “including infringement of freedom of speech. ... We the governing body acknowledge our negligence and sincerely apologize to all who felt her constitutional rights were violated.”
“It was a very generous statement,” Lysiak said of Wood’s public apology. “It didn’t just affirm Hilde’s rights but everybody’s rights.”
Hilde added: "Now that I believe my rights are protected I can move forward with covering the news. That is all I want to do.”