Minutes after reading a late-night news story online about him that he perceived to be inaccurate, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan ordered a sergeant to a reporter's home insisting on changes, a move First Amendment experts said reeked of intimidation and attempted censorship.
Meehans's actions were "despicable, totally despicable," said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher's Association. "It's the most intimidating type of (censorship) possible because the person trying to exercise it carries a gun."
Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley said he was shaken by the 12:45 a.m. Friday knock on the door of his Berkeley home. He said at first he and his wife thought something was drastically wrong or perhaps that a relative had died.
Meehan apologized Friday.
"I would say it was an overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out," Meehan said. "I could have done better." Meehan said he didn't think Oakley would be upset or intimidated because the police sergeant, Mary Kusmiss, regularly deals with the media.
"I did not mean to upset (Oakley) or his family last night; it was late, (I was) tired, too. I don't dispute that it could be perceived badly," he said.
Oakley had covered a raucous community meeting Thursday night in which Meehan attempted to explain to about 150 residents his department's failure to provide information to the public in the days after
Residents were angry that police did not immediately respond to a first call for help from Cukor made to a nonemergency line during an Occupy movement protest. Officers were directed to respond only to 911 emergencies.
Oakley had written that Meehan apologized to the community for the department's slow response. Meehan though, said, he apologized only for not informing the public sooner about why the response was slow.
Oakley changed two paragraphs in his story, but Ewert and Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it wasn't that Meehan wanted the article altered, it was that he sent an armed police sergeant to Oakley's home to ask for changes.
"Ordering a police officer to a journalist's home in the middle of the night to demand changes to a story is an attempt at 'censorship by intimidation,' Scheer said. "It definitely crossed the line. It's a violation of the First Amendment, let's be perfectly clear." It "goes to such an extreme it's hard to imagine."
Ewert said the chief should have just called the newspaper the next day or written a letter to the editor.
Even after Oakley made initial changes to the story Meehan early Friday continued to phone and email Oakley asking for additional changes. Oakley declined, saying he stood by his story.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates could not be reached for comment late Friday.
City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who called the community meeting Thursday night, called Meehan's actions "a little extreme."
"On Monday, I will discuss it with the city manager," Wengraf said. "I've never heard of that happening before. I understand it was probably really disturbing."
Scheer said it's one thing if this was a lapse in judgment by Meehan, but, he added, the city needs to gauge whether it was an indication of his inability to "manage the police department."