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County settles with journalist over video coverage of spanking case

Details to be released May 11

Mike Heine /The Week

(Published April 11, 2007, 12:58 p.m.)

An independent journalist suing Walworth County, Wis. and two sheriff's department courthouse security officers for alleged civil rights violations agreed to a settlement in U.S. District Court Monday.

Terms of the settlement could not be disclosed until after the county's insurance company--Wisconsin County Mutual--approves the agreement, said Michael Cotter, Walworth County deputy corporation counsel. A magistrate judge ordered all settlement documents be submitted by May 11.

The case could go to trial if the insurance company's approval committee rejects the settlement, Cotter said.

In March 2005, D. Suzanne Shell, a journalist from Elbert, Colo., filed a civil rights compliant against Walworth County, Sgt. Tom Hausner and deputy Tom Jones. She alleged the officers wrongfully and forcibly arrested her for filming things inside the old Walworth County courthouse in early 2003.

Shell was videotaping material for a documentary that included the story of a woman who was convicted of misdemeanor battery for an alleged severe spanking she gave her son.

Shell, 51, claims she asked for and received permission to do filming at the courthouse and claims Hausner and Jones wrongfully took her tape and used excessive force when arresting her for obstruction and disorderly conduct.
The county has denied those allegations in a response to the complaint.

"All I can say is it's settled," said Charles Bohl, an outside attorney representing the county.

"The resolution is the best option for Walworth County," said Undersheriff Kurt Picknell. "Any other information can be offered only after the settlement is approved."

Neither Shell nor her attorneys could be reached for comment.

Cotter said confidentiality clauses in the settlement would limit both sides' ability to comment on the case. However, the settlement amounts should be public record once the agreement is finalized since Walworth County is a public entity.
The only taxpayer-funded amount the county is liable for is the $50,000 insurance deductible, which was met through the county's defense of the case, Cotter said.

Both Hausner and Jones remain on the courthouse security staff.

Cotter did not believe the case damaged the officers' reputations.

He added that the county will revisit its policies regarding cameras in the courthouse and in courtrooms.
Shell authored a book, "Profane Justice: A Comprehensive Guide to Asserting Your Parental Rights," which accuses child protective services of being overzealous and ignoring the rights of parents
According to the book, Shell had a child removed from her home for alleged abuse in 1991.

Bob Dreps, an attorney who is an expert on media affairs, said in previous interviews with The Janesville Gazette that no one needs permission to film public hallways inside a public courthouse. However, filming in work areas may give security officers cause to ask her what she's doing there.

The officers should not have been able to demand she turn over her tape, Dreps told a reporter for The Janesville Gazette.


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