Journalist, political activist agree on shorter personal protection order period

Becky Vargo • Aug 18, 2017 at 8:00 AM

A local judge has kept in place an order to protect a West Michigan journalist from a political activist.

Supporters claim that Jim Chiodo of Park Township would never purposefully threaten or harass anyone. However, Ottawa County Circuit Judge Karen Miedema on Thursday continued a personal protection order (PPO) to make him stay away from Holland Sentinel editor Sarah Leach, Sentinel staff and the newspaper’s building.

The order was initially granted April 28. It was to remain in place for one year.

Chiodo then filed a motion to have the order rescinded. However, instead of a hearing on that request, the two sides on Thursday came to an agreement to shorten the time frame of the PPO to expire at the end of this year.

“It’s very telling, in the end, none of the other terms of the PPO were changed,” said Leach’s attorney, Michael Villar.

The shortened time frame is “what Sarah agreed to in order to diffuse the situation,” Villar said, noting the Grand Haven courtroom was full of mostly Chiodo supporters on Thursday.

Chiodo, a member of the West Michigan Republicans, has been a frequent commenter on The Holland Sentinel website and social media pages. Officials confirmed that he was also a frequent visitor to the Sentinel offices.

On Feb. 17, Leach filed a complaint with the Holland Department of Public Safety, noting that the newspaper began receiving a lot of comments and emails from Chiodo following the 2016 election.

“She said it often consisted of Jim calling her or her employees names, including ‘lib tard’ and ‘snowflakes,’” the report said. “She also said that Jim began accusing the Sentinel of being a one-sided news agency and promoting fake news.”

Also noted in the complaint was Leach’s concern that Chiodo put her work name and email on his public pages, requesting that she be contacted and harassed. Leach said she was concerned about Chiodo “because he appeared to be getting more and more concerning with his language and frequency of contact.” 

Chiodo was contacted by police and was asked to not contact The Holland Sentinel.

Shortly after that, he sent the newspaper an email directed at the Opinion writer, but Leach reported it to police and requested that harassment charges be made, according to a March 12 police report. When prosecutors denied pressing charges, Leach sought a personal protection order.

Leach’s statement in the PPO request noted that Chiodo had contacted the paper by phone, email and personal visits, during which time he accused her of planting false articles in the newspaper, fabricating letters to the editor, planting a “mole” from the Democratic Party in the newsroom and denying members of the public their First Amendment rights.

Following Thursday’s hearing, Villar emphasized that the Sentinel is a private business and not a governmental unit.

“There’s no way The Holland Sentinel or Sarah Leach can abridge his First Amendment rights because they are not a government,” the attorney said.

Following the hearing, Chiodo’s attorney, David Gilbert, said they were hoping to get the PPO dissolved or at least have a chance to enter more evidence, “but (the judge) closed proofs at the first hearing.”

Gilbert said it was unfortunate that Chiodo tried to represent himself at the first hearing, as he is unfamiliar with how the courts work.

The attorney also said Chiodo wasn’t making a personal attack on Leach.

“Mr. Chiodo had an issue with the newspaper and not so much with Sarah,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said it is also unfortunate that Leach received some false information about Chiodo, “which just instilled more fear on her part.” He said his client probably should have done some things differently, but the situation was overblown.

Chiodo said he would still do whatever he could to get his message out there, just not by using the local newspaper.

“My relationship and animosity are with the paper and not with Sarah,” he said.

So what made Leach fearful enough to ask for a personal protection order? Villar said that Chiodo continued to go to the newspaper office despite being asked not to. He also wrote a Facebook post that encouraged people to go to the Sentinel office, hug Sarah and talk about politics.

Villar noted that unwelcome contact from strangers can be construed as an assault. And Leach was pregnant at the time.

In the police report, Chiodo said he hated Leach, Villar said. He also reported her married name to the public and said that her professional name, which is her maiden name, is fake. 

A friend of Chiodo’s created a Go Fund Me page to cover legal expenses, and Chiodo created a Facebook “event” to invite followers to Thursday’s court hearing.

After the courtroom full of people left the hearing, a friend of Chiodo’s expressed remorse for his actions.

“I would never characterize him as somebody who would willfully harm or threaten somebody to the extent that she needs a PPO,” said Mark Gurley of Rockford. 

Gurley said he’s more concerned about his friend’s loss of rights, which includes his right to bear arms and carry a concealed weapon during the PPO period.

However, Gurley said Chiodo could have approached his contact with the Sentinel in a kinder fashion, and he wished out loud that people would have reasonable discussions about topics on which they disagree.

“It’s all about decency,” Gurley said. “People have forgotten the golden rule.”

Publisher statement

"The Holland Sentinel and Gatehouse Media stand behind Sarah,” Sentinel Publisher Brent Morris said. “We’ve supported Sarah from the beginning. The courts determined the validity of Sarah’s contentions and approved the PPO. We agree with the PPO. We’ll continue to support her in this action.”

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