A reporters' rights group blasted the campaign of Alaska Republican senate candidate Joe Miller on Monday after a liberal blogger was handcuffed by the candidate's private security guards before being set free by police.
"It strikes me as virtually incomprehensible that anyone would have to rough up and handcuff a reporter who's just trying to do a story," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"It seems to me that they didn't like this guy, so they just decided to take him out," Dalglish said of Tony Hopfinger, editor of the Alaska Dispatch website.
Click here to watch ABC's Jonathan Karl interview Joe Miller on the minimum wage and the 17th Amendment.
Hopfinger was detained Sunday by Miller's hired guards -- men wearing dark suits and earpieces -- after he chased the candidate with a video camera down the hallway of a public school, following an hour-long town hall meeting in the school's gym. Hopfinger was reportedly trying to ask Miller about his time as a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, amid allegations that he used government computers there for partisan political activity.
But the blogger "was surrounded by Miller's private detail and told that he had to leave," a statement from the Alaska Dispatch reads. The guards then accused Hopfinger of trespassing.
"Hopfinger asked why he was trespassing, as the event was at a public school. Seconds later, he was handcuffed and sequestered at one end of a hallway for at least 20 minutes," according to the website.
As they tried to document what was happening to Hopfinger, other reporters were confronted by Miller's guards and also accused of trespassing, a video posted on the Anchorage Daily News website showed, but none was detained. One of the guards was heard to say the trespassing claim was legitimate because the school had been rented by the campaign for a "private event."
Police released Hopfinger from the handcuffs and filed no charges.
Miller's campaign responded to the incident with a news release headlined, "Liberal Blogger 'Loses It," accusing Hopfinger of "a publicity stunt" and calling him "irrational, angry and potentially violent."
The reporters' rights group says the fact that Hopfinger writes for a liberal blog "should make no difference whatsoever."
"He may have been a little bit more aggressive than some of the rest of the reporters along the way, perhaps he was not as polite as the rest of the reporters -- which wouldn't shock me -- but there's nothing wrong with that," Dalglish said.
Miller's campaign also alleges that Hopfinger committed a physical assault against one of the bodyguards, shoving him. The blogger told the Anchorage Daily News that he felt threatened when the men surrounded him, and pushed one out of the way.
Hopfinger says he has no intention of suing the guards at this point, saying the "best thing" Miller can do is "answer questions from the media and his opponents."
Dalglish points to the arrest of reporters covering protests at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, saying she's worried about a trend of growing antipathy toward journalists among both private and public security personnel.
"For some reason that I don't quite understand, the political process is allowing more and more police and private security guards to consider the media to be the enemy," Dalglish said. "They need to be conscious of the difference between security and thuggery."
A statement from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent Republican who's now staging a write-in campaign against Miller, says she finds it "alarming that Joe feels he needs to hire security forces to protect him from Alaskan voters and members of the press."
Veteran GOP strategist Dick Wadhams, the Colorado state Republican chairman who has managed the campaigns of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), says it is "unusual" for a private citizen running for office to hire bodyguards before being elected.
"Yet, in this day and age, if a candidate has been receiving threats of some kind, I don't think it would be an inappropriate thing to do," Wadhams said.
Wadhams said it would be "a stretch" to assume Miller's campaign hired the guards simply to shield him from reporters.
A Miller spokesman says the security force at Central Middle School was required under the campaign's contract with the school district, and that the candidate -- a former Army officer, federal magistrate and state judge -- is not regularly accompanied by the bodyguards.
The Anchorage School District confirms that the campaign, which rented the space for the town hall for $400, was required to have "a security plan."
Under district protocol, users who rent school property "must have sufficient ushers, attendants or security monitors... to observe and keep an eye on" patrons during the event and ensure that school policies are being followed.
"But it's not my understanding that we must have a hired security team," said Heidi Embley, a spokeswoman for the schools.