An Oklahoma sheriff who discussed killing two journalists during a recorded conversation earlier this year should immediately resign, the IPI global network for press freedom said. Public officials who make such remarks have no business remaining in office. The sheriff’s refusal thus far to leave office sets a dangerous precedent for attacks on the press in the U.S.

IPI made the call after Oklahoma’s attorney general determined last month that McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy could not be removed from office under Oklahoma law over his comments.

The remarks in question were secretly recorded by Bruce Willingham, the publisher and editor of the McCurtain Gazette-News, during a March 6 meeting of the county commissioners. According to the transcript of the recording, which the Gazette-News published in mid-April, Sheriff Clardy and three other county officials discussed hanging Black people and killing two Gazette-News reporters who had been investigating the sheriff’s office. 

In the recording, county commissioner Mark Jennings tells the sheriff, “I know where two big deep holes are here if you ever need them,” to which Clardy responds, “I’ve got an excavator.” The officials go on to discuss the hit men they know, making explicit reference to journalist Christopher Willingham, the son of Bruce Willingham, who had published a months-long investigative series between 2021 and 2022 about allegations of official misbehavior and irregularities at the sheriff’s department.

“No journalist should ever fear for their life because of their work. In a healthy, functioning democracy, public officials are not immune from scrutiny, and must be able to withstand criticism without resorting to these appalling, threatening remarks,” IPI Director of Advocacy Amy Brouillette said. “It is especially disheartening to see this kind of behavior from elected officials representing a government and country that has long been a leader in protecting press freedom. Sheriff Clardy must immediately step down to avoid normalizing this kind of behavior.” 

Journalist and family left county for safety

Amidst the public backlash that followed the recordings’ exposure, Jennings resigned from office. One other official involved in the March 6 conversation was reportedly put on paid administrative leave in May.

On June 30, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond announced in a letter to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt that following an investigation, Sheriff Kevin Clardy would not face criminal charges, nor would he be removed from office, citing a lack of evidence pointing to criminal conduct. Stitt had previously called on Sheriff Clardy and the other officials involved in the conversation to resign. In the letter explaining his decision, Drummond said that “there is no provision of law in Oklahoma to throw elected officials out of office merely for saying something offensive.”  

The personal and professional impact of the comments made by Sheriff Clardy and others have been profound for Bruce and Christopher Willingham. In a statement published on the Gazette-News’s website on April 16, Bruce Willingham described how he and his son fear for their lives, writing, “if people who hate us kill me, the sad truth is they will likely accomplish much of what they want.” Reports emerged in June that Christopher Willingham and his family had fled McCurtain County and moved to Tulsa for safety reasons. Upon hearing the news that Sheriff Clardy would not be charged for his comments, Christopher Willingham told 2News Oklahoma, “it was like being punched in the stomach”. He also said that the Attorney General’s office did not once contact him during their investigation.  

In a June press release, the Washington D.C.-based National Press Club condemned the  sheriff’s remarks. “Violent threats against journalists by the elected officials they report on have no place in our democratic society,” said National Press Club representatives Eileen O’Reilly and Gil Klein in the joint statement. 

Press freedom is protected under the First Amendment of the American Constitution, however, recent years have seen a rise in physical, verbal, and legal attacks on journalists from both individuals and government officials. On February 22, journalist Dylan Lyons was shot dead while reporting at the scene of a shooting in Orlando, Florida. In March of this year, the Florida legislature introduced a bill that could threaten long-standing legal protections for journalists covering public officials in the United States. 

On May 3, in commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, President Joe Biden released a statement in support of independent journalism in which his administration “pledg[ed] to hold to account all those that seek to silence these voices essential to transparent and trustworthy governance.”