Not their finest hour

The Bayou Region is blessed with a variety of sources from which residents can keep informed of current events. The Times is proud to be among them.

Also among those entities is HTV, the television station grown by owner Martin Folse over many decades to be an integral and unique voice in our community.

When presenting the news, all of these entities –The Times included – have an ethical mandate to be fair, and present all sides of a story.

None of us is perfect.

Last year, a segment of HTV’s Bayou Time program, hosted by Folse, told two stories. One was of a dispute between a local neurosurgeon and a convenience store clerk that was perceived, due to words uttered by the clerk, as insulting to veterans. The other was a re-telling of efforts by local authorities to shut down convenience store sales of synthetic marijuana, a wellknown and dangerous scourge.

The juxtaposition of the two stories drew notice and not all of it was favorable. What many perceived as a xenophobic tone permeated the segment, with syllogistic references to convenience stores owned by Middle Eastern people and a call by Folse – invoking fear of connections to overseas terrorists – for boycotts.

A video montage during the telling of both tales included shots of convenience store clerks in handcuffs as well as the display sign at the location of the Roadrunner store on St. Charles Street and La. Highway 311.

Since then, owners of the Roadrunner store and their clerk have filed suit against Folse, alleging defamation.

Folse maintains that the suit attempts to defeat his First Amendment right to free expression.

Whether Folse defamed the store is a question for the courts to decide.

In a Jefferson Parish courtroom last week, a hearing was held to ascertain arguments from both sides.

But something else occurred at the hearing in addition to lawyers stating their cases.

Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., Sheriff Jerry Larpenter and State Rep. Joe Harrison accompanied Folse to court, although none was a subpoenaed witness.

Certainly all were within their rights to attend a public hearing in a public courtroom involving someone – Folse – with which all are acquainted. Folse is free to invite anyone he wishes to invite.

But as reported in this week’s issue of The Times, Folse’s legal counsel, at the start of the hearing, told State District Judge Nancy Miller that “distinguished guests” were present, and went on to name them.

The public officials gave various reasons for attending, including friendships with Folse, as reported in this issue of the newspaper.

Folse’s attorney says she made the announcement of their presence as a courtesy to the judge, although other attorneys and some law professors polled say such an announcement could be perceived as having an opposite effect.

From Folse’s perspective, the lawsuit at bar is a First Amendment battle. That Folse’s attorneys should do whatever is legal and appropriate to effectively argue his case is presumed.

But an argument can be made that the elected officials who attended the hearing should have realized their presence could become capital for one side, which is what arguably occurred once their presence was announced.

That the offices held by two of the most powerful elected officials in Terrebonne Parish and a seasoned state representative were used, not for purposes of being witnesses but rather as legal currency takes on a disturbing edge.

As Waitz, Larpenter and Harrison have stated, that Folse has waged on-air campaign against illegal sales of a controlled substance is undeniable, and is in itself understandable, even laudable.

We object, however, to their mere presence being announced in a court of law during an adversary proceeding.

As holders of the public trust they should have been astute enough to realize this was a possibility.

While accepting the motivations expressed by our local officials who made the 120-mile round trip to Gretna last week, allowing themselves to be used, we respectfully object.