After the MTSU student newspaper, Sidelines, characterized Rutherford County Sheriff’s officers as “thugs” in a recent issue, the office has worked hard to live up to the name, threatening the paper with a silly lawsuit and allegedly ordering background checks on its staffers. Meanwhile, university president Sidney McPhee, who’s been distracted and beleaguered by a tawdry sexual harassment complaint against him, hasn’t backed the school newspaper. After the editorial was published Feb. 18, he called Sheriff Truman Jones to distance himself from the piece.
“When the editorial came out, I received several calls in the community that it was an inappropriate reference,” McPhee says. “I picked up the phone and let the sheriff know that that was not the opinion or the position from the university and administration. We get a lot of help from the sheriff’s office during the football and basketball games, and I wanted to let the sheriff’s office know that those views are not ours.”
Last month, Sidelines ran an editorial about Gannett’s purchase of the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. In the piece, the paper commented that while Gannett might be a “massive, soul-eating, money-grubbing tyrant,” it might actually improve the moribund daily it acquired. The editorial opined that the DNJ fails to take a critical look at the city, offering a glowing perspective on everything: “MTSU is great, the city of Murfreesboro and its mayor is great, the sheriff and his merry band of thugs are great....”
For the editorial’s final throwaway line, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office fired off a letter to the student newspaper. “We are concerned that one of your employees may be using his employment with your newspaper to further his personal animosity of the sheriff’s office,” the letter from staff attorney Edward Farmer reads. “Please contact us as soon as possible so that this matter might be revolved without further legal action.”
That’s a not-so-veiled threat, and a weak one at that. Every lawyer knows that you can’t sue a newspaper for expressing an opinion about a public office and its employees. In any case, Sidelines editor Patrick Chinnery says that paper characterized the department as a “band of thugs” because it repeatedly stonewalled the paper when it asked for police reports and mug shots.
Chinnery called Farmer, and recounts that the lawyer told him that the sheriff’s office had no intention of suing a student newspaper. “I asked him, 'Why did you send me the letter?’ and he said that the sheriff was concerned that we were going to write an article about deputies misbehaving, and they wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to respond.”
Chinnery says that the newspaper hadn’t planned on looking into the sheriff deputies’ on-campus conduct, but he says now, “If that’s what they’re concerned about, maybe we should be investigating that.”
According to Chinnery, Farmer then explained that the sheriff believed that someone on the paper’s staff had a personal vendetta against the sheriff’s office. To test that theory, Farmer further explained, the sheriff ordered background checks on the paper’s staffers. Everyone was clean, although Chinnery heard that the sheriff’s top-notch research team uncovered information that the paper’s production manager ran into trouble when he fell behind in child support payments. In fact, the production manager is a childless 19-year-old.
The department’s lawyer didn’t return repeated calls for comment, and Sheriff Jones hung up on Desperately after saying, “There’s no story there.” That both Jones and his staff lawyer tried to bully a student newspaperand failed miserably at itmay not be the most interesting part of this saga. After all, sheriffs in Tennessee don’t have a collectively saintly reputation. Sidney McPhee’s behavior is more perplexing.
Late last year, the Tennessee Board of Regents suspended McPhee for 20 days and cut his pay by $10,000 after Tammie C. Allen, his administrative assistant, filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. In her complaint, Allen reported that McPhee groped her under her shirt and shorts, joked about the size of his penis and asked her “if she liked them big.” McPhee denied the charges but did concede that there was hugging and slow dancing. Around the time the complaint was being filed, McPhee was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Sidelines aggressively, but fairly, covered the sordid scandal, criticized his punishment as too lenient and, in a one-on-one interview, asked him flat-out why he didn’t take leave after he tried to kill himself. He replied that he was fine.
McPhee might not have been trying to exact revenge against the paper when he called the sheriff’s office, but he showed poor judgment. His first call should have been to the editors of his student newspaper, asking them why they felt that way about the local sheriff. Or, better yet, he should have stayed out of it altogether. Chinnery, the editor, says that McPhee never contacted him about why his paper characterized sheriff employees as a “band of thugs.” Why not? “The only thing I can think of is that the sheriff’s office to him is more important than the student newspaper.”