NCDOT official: 'Remove this quote from your article' on I-77 toll lane hearing

Published: Jan. 11, 2016 at 11:33 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) official wrote WBTV over the weekend asking a reporter to remove a quote, which was said in open court, from a story reporting on the I-77 toll lane hearing.

Mike Charbonneau, with NCDOT Communications, wrote reporter Steve Crump Saturday afternoon asking that a quote from the attorney representing "Widen I-77" be removed from an online article.

Attorney Matt Arnold argued the negotiations for the Interstate 77 toll road project were flawed.

"This contract is going to hold the citizens of North Carolina hostage for 50 years, and we're asking the court to declare it unconstitutional," Arnold argued in open court Friday morning.

"While I understand that you are directly quoting the attorney, this is a completely false statement, used as a scare tactic, and the judge clearly acknowledged that by ruling against all of their claims," Charbonneau wrote. "We respectfully ask that you remove this quote from the article and soundbite from the package."

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WBTV News Director Dennis Milligan called the request from NCDOT "inappropriate."

"In my 42 years of broadcast journalism, I can't think of another time that a government official requested we remove something from a story that was said in open court," Milligan said Monday. "We fairly and accurately represented both sides of the story."

Jonathan Jones, an Elon University professor who teaches Media Law and Ethics, said he was flabbergasted by the state's email and called the request "surprising."

"Statements made in open court are among the most protected statements that a reporter can get," Jones said. "They certainly have no legal standing to demand you remove the quote."

In his email, Charbonneau said Arnold's quote is "a categorically false statement aimed at intentionally misinforming the public and the judge agreed with the state, denying all of the opposition group's claims."

Jones says it is too early for the NCDOT to make blanket statements about the judge's ruling.

"You don't have the full articulated written statement from the judge on his ruling, so how can DOT say the judge agreed with everything they presented?" Jones asked. "We don't know what the judge is fully thinking yet."

The judge's written ruling has been filed, according to court records, but has not yet been made public.

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