A San Jose court is considering whether to impose a restraining order against a former Mercury News reporter, following two days of testimony about an incident that happened last summer.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Carol Overton heard closing arguments on Friday for a restraining order hearing against former sports reporter Paul Gackle requested by the newspaper. Overton, who also heard testimony on Feb. 7, took the matter under submission and said she will make a written decision in the near future.
The hearings concerned an incident on July 11, 2021, where Gackle allegedly threatened Mercury News Reporter Robert Salonga at a campaign event for district attorney candidate Sajid Khan. Krista Johnson, the paper’s attorney, argued a permanent restraining order is necessary because Gackle made a credible threat of violence and has a “dangerous fixation” with his former employer.
“Nothing has been brought up that undercuts the basis of this restraining order,” Johnson said Friday.
Gackle, who represented himself, argued his comment to Salonga was not a threat. He cited testimony from a deputy public defender at the event who said Salonga did not appear to be in danger. Gackle argued the restraining order was filed following a San José Spotlight article in which he criticized his former employer and the district attorney’s office—a connection the Mercury News denies. He argued the order would possibly set a negative precedent for free speech cases.
“The chilling effect this would have on the First Amendment would be devastating,” Gackle said.
The extraordinary fight between a journalist and his former newspaper stems from an incident that occurred on July 21, 2017, when a woman named Sydney Whalen stabbed Gackle 14 times and robbed his apartment. Whalen was later charged and convicted of killing a man in Hayward days after her assault on Gackle.
Gackle, then employed at the Mercury News as a sports reporter covering the San Jose Sharks hockey team, said he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder that made it difficult to do his job. Gackle said the paper exacerbated his stress after it published an article about Whalen in September 2018 that mentioned his name. After being fired in 2019, Gackle has criticized the paper and Salonga on Twitter. He has also been a vocal critic of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, which he claims violated his rights as a crime victim by not initially notifying him of the identity of his attacker.
‘Haven’t even punched him yet’
Gackle has been under a temporary restraining order to stay away from the paper’s employees since August. According to court documents, Gackle approached Salonga at the campaign event and allegedly raised his voice while criticizing Salonga’s reporting. When a deputy defender, Carlie Ware, intervened, Gackle allegedly said “I haven’t even punched him yet.”
“He unleashed his hatred and anger on one of (the Mercury News’) employees who just happened to be at an event attended by Mr. Gackle,” Johnson said during her opening statement earlier this month. “And the Mercury News has a sincere and real fear that this is likely to happen again.”
Gackle argued his remark to Salonga was meant to be sarcastic, and he hasn’t made any other comments that could be construed as threats to the Mercury News or its workers.
“There have been no direct threats of any kind—there have been no direct contacts with the Mercury News or its employees other than the one incident, let alone credible threats of violence of any kind,” Gackle said.
Ware also spoke as a witness during the first hearing where she described the interaction between Gackle and Salonga.
“It never crossed my mind that anything dangerous happened or that anyone felt threatened,” Ware said, adding that Gackle appeared to be speaking with a loud voice but didn’t get physical.
A tragic back story
Gackle said he took disability leave in May 2019 due to his PTSD and the Mercury News fired him in October 2019 after he expressed concern about returning to work. Bay Area News Group senior editor Bert Robinson testified that Gackle was terminated because he refused to return to work and was insubordinate toward his supervisors.
Robinson said Gackle’s altercation with Salonga was the primary reason the organization asked for a restraining order. Robinson said he also spoke with a contact in the Santa Clara County DA’s office who informed him about an incident in 2019 where Gackle brought a knife into the DA’s office and threatened suicide. Gackle said he was upset with the DA’s office for allegedly failing to help him secure services as the victim of a crime.
Gackle noted that he suffers from PTSD and has difficulty controlling stress symptoms but has worked on breathing techniques to manage them. He asked the judge to take into consideration how a permanent restraining order would diminish his personal and professional career prospects.
“This restraining order would be an absolute death sentence to my future,” Gackle said.