BENTONVILLE -- Benton County Sheriff Kelley Cradduck threatened Friday to arrest Tracy Neal, a Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter, if Neal entered a news conference, but then relented and let him in.
"What would you do if somebody came into your office and you told him to wait up front, then he said no and started wandering around wherever he wanted to?" Cradduck said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. The news conference at the Sheriff's Office took place at 11 a.m., shortly after Neal finished a 10:30 a.m. appointment with Cradduck.
Neal said he was told about the news conference when he arrived for his appointment by someone who thought he had arrived early. He noticed television station vehicles in the parking lot after his appointment with the sheriff. He asked Cradduck if something was happening, and Cradduck replied there was a news conference scheduled. Neal said he would stay for that. Cradduck objected, saying it was just for television stations, according to accounts by both.
"Look, it's to my benefit to have the newspaper there, but I didn't schedule the conference. I was told it was for the TV stations," Cradduck said. "Maybe I misunderstood, but I don't think I did."
Cradduck said he would check into the arrangements made for the news conference when his public information officer returns from vacation next week.
Cradduck is seeking federal grants to buy body cameras for deputies, he announced at the news conference.
Neal notified his editor a news conference was taking place, and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer Jason Ivester arrived before it started. Ivester witnessed part of the exchange between Neal and Cradduck.
Both Neal and Ivester said in separate accounts that, in Ivester's words, Cradduck argued "the television stations were there because they had inquired about a story. Cradduck said he didn't want the newspaper covering this because he was approached by the television stations."
The news conference was called at the initiative of the Sheriff's Office, said the assignment editor of one of the attending stations.
"We did not make that request. This is the first time I've heard of that," Adam Roberts of KHBS/KHOG, said Friday afternoon.
Tevin Wooten of KNWA attended the news conference, but declined comment when reached by telephone. Both he and Roberts said requests for interviews of the television station personnel attending the event would require approval by their station's management. Neither request by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for such interviews was granted by Friday afternoon.
"I told the sheriff that he was having a press conference in a public building and I should be allowed to attend," Neal said. "The sheriff again threatens to arrest me, and Harold Gage with the Benton County Sheriff's Office steps in front of me and asks me not to go forward."
Cradduck didn't threaten to arrest Neal until after he had told Neal numerous times he wasn't allowed to attend, the sheriff said.
"He doesn't have the right to ignore me," Cradduck said.
Neal or any other Arkansan "has the right to attend such a meeting, not as a newspaper reporter but as a member of the public," said Tres Williams, communications director for the Arkansas Press Association, an association of the state's newspapers.
"There is no legal basis for saying you're going to arrest someone for attending a public meeting," and a news conference in a public building in which the sheriff makes a news announcement meets the definition of a public meeting, Williams said.
The Sheriff's Office is a building with witnesses, victims and prisoners in it, Cradduck said. It's not a regular office building, and no one has the right to wander the offices and attend whatever meeting he wants even in a private building, he said.
Neal "was breaking the rules in a building built on rules," the sheriff said. "He cannot disobey me in that building," Cradduck said.
By the end of the exchange, Cradduck had told Neal "Tracy, get your ass out of here! Now!" in the presence of those who had arrived for the conference, Ivester said.
Cradduck then asked the group if anyone else from a newspaper was there, the accounts from Cradduck, Neal and Ivester agreed. Ivester identified himself. Cradduck said he didn't know Ivester or realize he worked for the same newspaper as Neal.
"I thought they were from different papers, so I let them in," Cradduck said.
He assumed if someone from another paper arrived for the news conference, it must have received notice and then the event wasn't just for television stations, the sheriff said. Ivester said he identified himself as being with the same organization as Neal.
According to Ivester, Cradduck "asked what paper I work for. I told him, 'The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; I work with Tracy,' while pointing to Neal. At that time, Cradduck rolled his eyes and gave body language that told Neal to come along to the press conference."
NW News on 08/01/2015
Print Headline: Reporter threatened with arrest for attending news conference