Journalist group condemns charges against father-son newspaper duo

Two journalists will go on trial in St. Thomas, Ont., today in a case that will be watched closely by journalists across the country.

'I'm still shocked' says father after pair charged while covering fatal crash

Aylmer Express publisher John Hueston, 67, and his son Brett, 33, the paper's editor, were arrested by the OPP as they gathered information about a car that drove off a cliff last year. The pair now face charges of criminal obstruction of a peace officer, in a case that will be closely watched by advocates of press freedom.

Two journalists go on trial in St. Thomas, Ont., today in a case that will be watched closely by journalists across the country.

John Hueston, 67, the publisher of the Aylmer Express, and his son Brett, 33, the paper's editor, were charged by the OPP as they were gathering information about a car that drove off a cliff into Lake Erie near Port Bruce on June 23, 2017.

The next day, the Special Investigations Unit was called in to determine if an OPP vehicle had been in pursuit of the car that crashed. The death of the driver was ultimately determined to be a suicide.

That same day, John Hueston and his son went to interview the people who lived in a house at the end of Springfield Road, near the cliff, to see whether they had observed a police chase.

To get to the scene, they drove past a road-closed sign, which Hueston said was standard procedure for reporters in the area.

Police shout: 'You can't be here'

"We parked our car, making sure it wasn't going to impede anybody, got out and thought 'We might as well get a couple photographs of the overall scene,' which we did," said Hueston. At this point, he said, they were at least 50 metres away from any police cars.

"As I was heading back towards the driveway to this home, Brett said 'somebody's coming.'"

It was a plainclothes police officer and "She was not happy. I think she shouted at us: 'You can't be here.'"

When Hueston asked for her identification, he said she offered to send over her superior. When the commanding officer arrived, a similar exchange occurred.

"He said 'You guys can't be here, you got to go.' And I said: 'OK, if we got to go, where can we go?'"

​Shortly after, the men were handcuffed and taken to the Elgin OPP detachment where they were held for several hours.

They were each charged with criminal obstruction of a peace officer.

Journalists stunned

"I couldn't believe it, because it was such a benign situation," said Hueston. "That was not what I would consider an active crime scene, even if the SIU was there investigating."

"We were shocked. I'm still shocked ... This is crazy that we're [facing] criminal charges. I mean, criminal charges, it's a big deal. It's a life-changing conviction."

Hueston said he and Brett were simply doing their jobs.

"We didn't do anything that could be construed as obstruction … I don't think I trespassed. And going around the (road-closed) sign, that's customary."

Asked what this case says about the state of media freedom in Canada, Hueston replied:

"It says the police don't give a damn about it, and frankly, my guess is that they would prefer that we would be prohibited from sites. That's the impression I get from some [police officers]."

The charges have been condemned by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

"The OPP's decision to charge a father and son team who run a community newspaper is a stunning and unacceptable assault on press freedom and the public's right to know," said CAJ president Karyn Pugliese.

"We urge the OPP to immediately withdraw all charges against the journalists."

The OPP has declined to comment on the case while it's before the courts, but media officer Const. Adam Crewdson issued a response via email:

"The OPP strives for a good working relationship with our media partners. The media-police relationship is very important to the OPP as they help us inform the public on policing matters, public safety concerns, traffic initiatives and much more."

Hueston and his son are to appear in the Ontario Court of Justice in St. Thomas Wednesday morning. The trial is expected to last one day.