PHOENIX - Two newspaper executives who published details of a secret grand jury subpoena seeking reporters' notes and lists of website readers won't face charges following a deluge of criticism about their arrests, the county attorney announced yesterday.
"It has become clear to me that the matter has gone in a direction that I would not have authorized," Maricopa Attorney Andrew Thomas said. "The case cannot go forward. It has been compromised."
But he said he still believes the Phoenix New Times "arguably" broke the law when on Thursday it published details from the Aug. 24 subpoena, which stems from the investigation into an article the paper published that included the home address of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
State law prohibits online publication of law enforcement members' home addresses "if the disclosure poses an imminent and serious threat" to the safety of officers or their families.
But the subpoena went far beyond the 2004 article, seeking documents and other material related to the preparation and publication of numerous stories on Arpaio. It also sought Internet addresses of all people who visited the New Times website and any Internet addresses those people may have gone to before reading the stories.
The paper's executives, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, wrote that they regarded the article published Thursday as an act of civil disobedience, and called the subpoena a "breathtaking abuse of the United States Constitution."
Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, and Larkin, chief executive of the Phoenix-based chain, were arrested on a misdemeanor charge of disclosing grand jury information.
Disclosing grand jury information is punishable by up to six months in jail and $2,500 in fines for a person, $20,000 for an enterprise.
Lacey, who said he was held in custody for seven hours before being released yesterday, welcomed Thomas's decision to drop the case.
"It certainly took some courage for him to do that," Lacey said. "It is great news for the First Amendment and the Constitution and our readers."
Special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik, who had issued the subpoenas, did not immediately return calls for comment Friday.
First Amendment advocates, journalist groups, and the libertarian-oriented Goldwater Institute blasted the prosecutor for the arrests and the subpoena.
"It is stunningly overbroad," said David Bodney, a First Amendment lawyer who represents media clients.
"This in some ways strikes at the heart of a free press and creates what we call a chilling effect," said Joseph A. Russomanno, an associate professor of journalism at Arizona State University who co-wrote a recently published text on journalism law.
Clint Bolick, a civil liberties advocate with the Goldwater Institute, said he stood shoulder to shoulder with the journalism executives.
"It is difficult to conceive any wrong that could justify such a sweeping inquiry, not only into the files of New Times but into the Internet browsing habits of tens of thousands of innocent readers," Bolick wrote in an e-mail.