Toni Chritton Johnson heard a kerfuffle outside the Howell County Courthouse and decided to take a look.
Johnson owns the West Plains Opera House across the square. It is an event and catering location. As a former TV reporter, Johnson’s old instincts kicked in. She pulled out her phone and started recording.
That day, September 7, multiple phones outside the courthouse were recording video. A group of First Amendment supporters and citizen journalists had gathered on the public sidewalk to protest an order signed by Chief Circuit Court Judge Steven Privette. The order, issued by Privette in May, banned the recording of people entering or exiting the courthouse, even of public property such as the sidewalk or street.
Regular readers of my column will remember Privette as the southern Missouri judge recently asked by the Missouri Circuit Court of Appeals to explain himself for attempting to convict Betty Grooms of Howell County Circuit Court in criminal contempt of court. He claims she did not provide him with a table detailing the various court costs owed by the defendants.
Privette’s wife lost an election to Grooms, and the judge declined to retire from the case. This week the Court of Appeals allowed the contempt case to proceed, although Grooms’ attorney is likely to appeal any decision Privette makes in the dispute.
Howell County has seen a plethora of citizen journalists conducting live-streamed interactions with law enforcement and other officials — not much different from the St. Louis area. These people didn’t take too kindly to being told they couldn’t stand on a public sidewalk and record video outside of a public building. First Amendment proponents were told by the Howell County sheriff’s deputies that if they did not stop the records they would be dragged before Privette for contempt.
“You can’t,” says Randle Daily, who publishes videos on YouTube under the name “Show Me State News.” “If we are on a public sidewalk, that is our First Amendment right.”
Shortly after Johnson’s arrival, Daily and another person were handcuffed and taken to court. She was speechless.
“It was bizarre,” says Johnson. “That can’t actually happen in 2022.”
But it is, and in a rural area like Howell County, residents often feel helpless when faced with a judge, sheriff, or other powerful local official. To face such struggles, they often turn to outside sources for help, such as out-of-town lawyers or journalists.
In the courtroom, Privette told people being brought before the court that his powers extended beyond the courthouse steps.
“You could use a telescope and take (photos or video) from a mile away and you would be disobeying the order of this court,” the judge said, according to audio posted to YouTube.
Daily and his fellow travelers refused to budge.
“He thinks he’s King George,” Daily says of Privette. “He thinks he’s above the law.”
After exiting the courtroom, they approached “the law” – Sheriff Brent Campbell – and suggested that he not let his deputies be used by Privette in an unconstitutional ploy. They created a community and a social media stink.
Big Country 99 station manager George Sholtz intervened. He began talking about the dispute on the radio and filed a Sunshine Law request for documents related to Privette’s order.
“I cannot tolerate a local official trying to violate the constitution and take away our civil rights,” Sholtz told me.
Campbell apparently agreed. On September 16, the sheriff posted a statement on Facebook that he would be providing security at the courthouse. That day, Privette revoked his appointment.
“At the request of the Howell County Sheriff, all warrants relating to filming in and around the Howell County Courthouse are withdrawn,” reads the new warrant, which is posted on the door at the front of the courthouse.
The citizen protesters stood their ground and won.
“We made changes,” says Daily. “We, the people, have helped bring about change. It was voices, man. It was voices.”