July 3, 2008
Chief, Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Criminal Section, PHB
Washington, D.C. 20530
Via facsimile: 202-514-8336
Dear Mr. Kappelhoff:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about a series of disturbing letters and notes written in a consistently personal, racist, and violent tone to Michelle Ferrier, a columnist with the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida and managing editor of MyTopiaCafe, aWeb site sponsored by the News-Journal.
Ferrier received a total of seven letters and one larger envelope--each one addressed to her at the News-Journal office building--between October 5, 2005, and July 17, 2007, according to copies of the posted correspondence that Ferrier provided to CPJ. Each letter or envelope contained either handwritten letters or handwritten notations marked on photocopies of her columns or other newspaper or magazine articles. The handwriting on each piece of correspondence indicates they came from the same individual.
Ferrier is black, and her picture runs alongside her column in the News-Journal. She has written often about matters of race, she told CPJ, in a way to try to "bring people together." Each piece of correspondence is personally directed at Ferrier as a representative of African Americans as a group. "Have you played the race card Michelle this week," reads the first letter postmarked from Daytona Beach on October 5, 2005. "All you people do is cry bitch wine [sic], bitch." The letter goes on, "Bitch you people are 12% of the USA population."
The fourth letter, postmarked from mid-Florida on July 11, 2006, reads, "Before this world is over there will be a race war[.] Why do [sic] think so many people are stalking [sic] up on guns?" The same letter goes on, "How do you get a nigger out of a tree--cut the rope!"
Ferrier quit her job on the night desk at the News-Journal in August 2006 after receiving the above letter. "I was afraid," she told CPJ. She worked part-time assignments from her home over the next nine months before returning to work full-time again at the News-Journal in May 2007, this time in a daytime position in which she felt reasonably safe coming to work.
Ferrier raised the matter of the correspondence publicly during a question-and-answer session with speakers at a panel on which you appeared, "Standing Up Against Hate Speech," at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis on June 7, she told CPJ. You publicly encouraged her to make the correspondence available to your office, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, another speaker on the same panel, told CPJ.
Stephen Curran, criminal section deputy chief for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, confirmed that he recently received copies of the correspondence directly from Ferrier. The criminal section of the Civil Rights Division previously received copies of the correspondence in 2007, according to both FBI Daytona Beach Resident Agency Special Agent Daniel C. Wescott, and Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Robert E. O'Neil.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement as well as Daytona Beach Police Department officials each also confirmed to CPJ that they received copies of at least two pieces of correspondence as part of complaints filed by Ferrier in November 2006 and March 2007, respectively, under FDLE number 20060702471, Submission 001 and 002, copies of which were obtained by CPJ.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide. CPJ urges the U.S. Justice Department to thoroughly investigate this correspondence and to take all appropriate enforcement steps. We also urge law enforcement agencies to take action to ensure that Ferrier is able to continue to work without fear of reprisal.