A former South Bay sports reporter is fighting back after his employer filed for a restraining order—a move he says could shatter his chances for a normal life.
A hearing could decide whether Paul Gackle—a former hockey reporter at the Mercury News—will be forced to stay away from the newspaper and its employees, setting off an extraordinary legal fight between a journalist and the newspaper. On Tuesday, Commissioner Erik Johnson continued the hearing to Dec. 13.
The newspaper’s executives say Gackle poses a threat after he allegedly threatened another reporter at a public event and criticized the paper on Twitter. Gackle says the move is retaliation after the newspaper fired him when he became a crime victim and began blowing the whistle on the District Attorney‘s handling of his case.
Gackle, who covered the San Jose Sharks for two years, was stabbed 14 times in 2017 by an assailant, Sydney Whalen, during a robbery in his apartment. Gackle says he was fired in 2019 as he struggled to recover from post traumatic stress disorder.
Gackle has since struggled to secure victim’s compensation—going without a paycheck for a year and a half—and has blamed the District Attorney’s Office for mishandling his case, including failing to notify him of the assailant’s identity for nearly a year.
The Santa Clara County Superior Court already granted the newspaper a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Gackle at the end of August.
The Mercury News claims in its petition that Gackle “stated an intent to punch” reporter Robert Salonga during a July 11 campaign event for Sajid Khan, who is running for Santa Clara County District Attorney. According to the petition, Gackle yelled at Salonga for ruining his life with coverage of the assault, and said, “I haven’t even punched him yet” when a deputy public defender intervened in the confrontation. Gackle told San José Spotlight he was just being sarcastic and left the event voluntarily after it happened.
“I regret the interaction because it gave the Mercury News impetus to sew together this whole TRO against me,” Gackle said. “It didn’t do anything to help my own personal objectives, but that said, it’s nothing like what the (Mercury News) is making that exchange out to be.”
But the newspaper waited six weeks after the incident to file the restraining order on Aug. 25, records show, and two days after this news organization published a story about Gackle’s situation.
Margaret Petros, executive director of Mothers Against Murder and an advocate for Gackle, said it’s absurd to portray Gackle as a violent threat, noting that she’s helped file numerous TROs in the past and is familiar with the kind of people they’re designed to provide protection against.
“Paul is not a violent person,” she told San José Spotlight. “Paul is a very angry, traumatized person.”
To support its need for a restraining order, the Mercury News also cites Twitter posts where Gackle allegedly “shows an escalating fixation with the Mercury News and its employees, and a deteriorating mental state,” noting that he stated his intent to commit suicide in tweets referencing the paper.
The petition also claims Gackle repeatedly sent direct messages to Salonga and tagged him and the Mercury News in posts criticizing the paper’s reporting. It also references an incident where Gackle brought a knife to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and threatened to kill himself.
Petros said none of Gackle’s Twitter posts contain direct threats against the Mercury News. She’s concerned that granting a restraining order based on these kinds of tweets could have a chilling impact on other crime victims’ First Amendment right to criticize their former employers.
Getting at the truth
According to the filing, Gackle did not object to his name being published in a September 2018 article in the Mercury News that reported on Whalen’s crimes. Gackle disputes this claim, stating he objected to his name being used and was given a choice for the story to run immediately or later.
Managing Editor Bert Robinson declined comment, and referred San José Spotlight to the court filings.
Gackle claims the Mercury News is retaliating against him for speaking out about the newspaper’s alleged mistreatment of him.
Gackle claimed the newspaper fired him in 2019 after he expressed concern about returning to work while still suffering from trauma. Gackle said filing a restraining order two days after he told his story to this news organization could set a precedent to silence other whistleblowers.
“This is chilling and silencing people who might come forward and expose toxic work culture,” he said. “This gives the employer just one more tool in their belt to keep them silent.”
If granted, the restraining order would bar Gackle from approaching any Mercury News employees within 100 yards while they’re covering news stories in public spaces. Gackle says this would prevent him from participating in political campaigns like Khan’s and make it harder for him to find another job.
“Who wants to hire somebody who has a black stain on their record, where the legal system has made a ruling that I’m a potential threat to my former employers?” Gackle said. “If they go through with this, it’s them handcuffing me and putting me behind bars without actually doing it.”
It could also potentially affect Gackle’s ability to continue receiving payments through the California Victims Compensation Board, which provides financial assistance to crime victims. Gackle, who hasn’t had income for more than a year, said he recently received his first check from the board.
Petros said the restraining order could undo months spent helping Gackle heal from his trauma.
“I believe Paul is on the right track,” Petros said. “To put such a mark on this man’s record, with a restraining order, it’s so devastating.”
Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.
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