Two newspaper executives who published details of a secret grand jury subpoena seeking reporters' notes and lists of Web site readers won't face charges following a deluge of criticism about their arrests, the county attorney announced Friday.
"It has become clear to me that the matter has gone in a direction that I would not have authorized," Maricopa County 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 the paper's 2004 article 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 preparation and publication of numerous stories on Arpaio. It also sought Internet addresses of all people who visited the New Times Web site and any Internet addresses those people may have visited before reading the stories.
The paper executives, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, wrote 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, CEO of the Phoenix-based chain, each were arrested on a misdemeanor charge of disclosing grand jury information.
Disclosing grand jury information is punishable by up to six months in jail, $2,500 in fines for a person and $20,000 for an enterprise.
Lacey, who said he was held in custody for seven hours before being released early Friday, welcomed Thomas' 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 Arizona State University associate professor of journalism who co-authored 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.
Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, formerly known as New Times Media, is the nation's largest publisher of alternative weekly newspapers. Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix paper in 1970.
Charges against news executives are dropped