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SPJ Headlines


6/11/2002


SPJ Helps Secure Open Records
Victory in New Jersey

The Society of Professional Journalists helped convince a Superior Court Judge in New Jersey that police reports – and 911 tapes – are public records under the state’s laws.

In the case of Asbury Park Press vs. Lakewood Township Police Department, the Society and two other organizations supported the Asbury Park Press’ legal action to seek the release of 911 tapes and police reports regarding a July 6, 2001, police chase in Lakewood Township, N.J. The New Jersey Attorney General appeared as an amicus on the other side of the issue.

Earlier this week, Judge Eugene D. Serpentelli found that the police reports and the 911 tapes are both public records. The judge said, however, that the 911 tapes will be disclosed immediately and the police reports will be confidential until any trial is completed.

The judge’s ruling was one of first impression in New Jersey and could help set precedents in the state and around the nation regarding open records issues for 911 tapes.

“We salute the judge for protecting the public’s right to see and hear these public records,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “Such records often contain material of great public interest, and access to them is essential for the public and the news media to make sure public agencies are accountable for their actions.”

The case stems from a confrontation between the Lakewood Township police and Thomas Jacobs, who was driving through Lakewood Township in July 2001 and was stopped and forcibly removed by undercover police officers from his vehicle. Jacobs said in the incident, he was thrown to the ground, kicked, and punched.

Shortly after the confrontation, the Asbury Park Press filed legal action to obtain the 911 tapes and police reports regarding the incident.

“This kind of case is SPJ’s bread and butter,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment Legal Counsel at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “By fighting these actions in New Jersey, the Society has helped to make important precedent regarding access to a valuable journalist resource – 911 tapes.”

Other organizations signing the friend-of-the-court legal brief supporting the Asbury Park Press were The New Jersey Press Association and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

SPJ says Israel should stop threatening journalists
The Society of Professional Journalists is asking the government of Israel to stop the intimidation and injury of journalists trying to cover the conflict in the West Bank.

SPJ also is calling on all journalists in the region to observe SPJ’s Code of Ethics and urging all governments to guarantee freedom of information.

“SPJ is deeply concerned that the Government of Israel is worsening the grave situation in the Occupied Territories by injuring and intimidating journalists who are attempting to report the biggest story in the world today,” said SPJ President Al Cross in a letter delivered to the Israeli Embassy in Washington today. The letter can viewed online at http://www.spj.org/news.asp?ref=231.

“We respectfully request that the Israeli Defense Force and other elements of the government allow reporters and photographers to do their jobs and cease the intimidation that has escalated at times into serious injury,” Cross asked Ambassador David Ivry. “These journalists are not the enemies of Israel or the Palestinians. They are the enemies of ignorance and prevarication and the allies of truth and enlightenment.”

While it is unclear whether specific coverage has encouraged Israeli action against journalists, Cross, a political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, told the ambassador, “That’s no reason to subject reporters, photographers, and producers to the intimidation and injury we have seen from your government,” which “has long been a beacon of democracy and freedom in the Middle East.”

Israeli actions demonstrate a growing, disturbing penchant among many governments to restrict, penalize, harass, threaten, injure, and kill journalists during the course of conflict in order to silence an effort to get out the truth and give people throughout the world a first-hand look at crisis. SPJ calls on all governments to guarantee freedom of information.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says four journalists have been killed, and others have been subjected to more than 50 incidents of violence and intimidation since the latest Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. The most recent death was that of Italian photojournalist Raffaele Ciriello in Ramallah on March 13. More than 20 journalists have come under Israeli fire since the offensive began March 29, according to the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. The Los Angeles Times reported that in most cases, the fire apparently is meant as warning shots, but five journalists have been wounded, including one American, Anthony Shadid of the Boston Globe. The latest known shooting victim was a French TV photographer, Jerome Marcantetti.

Israel has declared most cities in the West Bank off limits to journalists. On April 5, a convoy of foreign correspondents waiting for U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni’s to arrive at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah was charged by two Israeli army vehicles. Without warning, one of the vehicles twice rammed a clearly marked CNN car, and soldiers threw several stun grenades at the journalists. When the convoy backed up and tried to leave, the soldiers fired plastic bullets at CNN’s armored car, chipping its reinforced glass windows. On the same day, a group of journalists tried to walk to Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where Palestinian militants in the Church of the Nativity are in a standoff with Israeli troops outside. A block from the square, Israeli soldiers opened fire toward the group without warning, according to journalists who were present. The shots apparently were meant only to intimidate the journalists, but a French television cameraman was hit in the thigh by a fragment, according to The Washington Post.

“Journalists are trying to determine whether dozens of monks, priests, and nuns inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity are hostages or willing companions,” Cross told the Israeli ambassador.

Five journalists from Agence France-Presse and Spanish television walked into the West Bank town of Yatta wearing flak jackets bearing the letters “TV” in big white tape and waving a white flag but retreated under Israeli gunfire, The New York Times reported. Journalists who stayed in Ramallah after Israel declared it a closed military zone got the message all last week, the Times said. Israeli snipers took potshots at their hotel and passing tanks fired into the air.

The Times also reported that the government has expelled CBS, NBC, and Al- Jazeera from Ramallah. It did likewise with Abu Dhabi TV, revoking credentials of two reporters and deporting one of them. Last week, soldiers forced journalists out of an interview with a Palestinian family at its Ramallah apartment. A family member had been arrested and released by the Israelis, and the journalists wanted to talk to him. Soldiers arrived outside the apartment sent word that the journalists had to go, then confronted the reporters with guns and ordered them to their hotel.

Early this week, the Post reported, soldiers seemed to act specifically to restrict reporters’ movements. For an hour Monday, troops stationed themselves in front of the City Inn Palace Hotel, one place where journalists stay. A reporter for a Cairo newspaper left the hotel to inspect a tire on his car that had been flattened during an excursion in the city. The soldiers at the hotel fired warning shots and he skittered back inside. Then a camera operator returning to the hotel in his white, bulletproof vehicle heard gunfire and stopped. He moved the car slightly forward, at which point the car came into the view of the soldiers at the hotel. He said they shot at the ground in front of him, and he reversed slowly, but the gunfire continued, and shrapnel hit the underside of the vehicle.

The restrictions are tougher than in previous, similar situations, apparently because the Israeli Defense Force was angered last month by an Israeli broadcast that showed troops blowing off the door to a family’s house with explosives and finding that they had fatally wounded a woman inside. An Israeli soldier turned to the camera and said: “I don’t know what we’re doing here. Purification, maybe – apparently it’s dirty here. I don’t know why a good Hebrew soldier should be here so far from home.” Top military officers said the Israeli outlet had violated a deal in which the army could censor images, but the outlet, Channel 2, said it had given advance notice that the deal was off.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization in the United States, with members living in several other nations and some working in the Middle East, including Israel and the West Bank. SPJ works to improve and protect journalism and is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

Society Helps Fight Ridiculous FEC Rules on Political Candidate Debates
The Society of Professional Journalists is fighting the Federal Election Commission on regulations that burden the ability of news organizations to sponsor debates between political candidates without running afoul of federal campaign finance laws.

Under long existing commission regulations, the sponsorship of such debates by media organizations is considered a punishable crime – an illegal corporate campaign contribution – unless the debate participants are selected according to “pre-established, objective criteria.”

SPJ and 12 other organizations – led by Viacom, Inc., owner of CBS – jointly filed a petition today asking the FEC to commence proceedings that would reverse the rule established pursuant to the Federal Election Campaign Act.

The petition was prompted by the filing of two complaints with the FEC by fringe political candidates who objected to being excluded from debates sponsored by local television stations in New York and Boston.

“We seek a common-sense approach that encourages a meaningful exchange of views to help voters make a choice,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “I have covered many debates in which a token or fringe candidate contributed nothing to the discussion and in fact degraded it by taking time from other candidates. If a news organization, in its sound journalistic judgment, concludes that a candidate would detract from the dialogue rather than add to it, that organization should be free to exclude that candidate, just as it is free to choose the people it interviews for news reports.”
SPJ and the other media organizations argue that the FEC should not, and constitutionally may not, require a news organization to formalize criteria for selecting debate candidates, or apply such criteria in a rigid fashion, as the price of being allowed to sponsor a debate. Such a requirement, the media groups argue, infringes on the independent judgment afforded to journalists under the First Amendment.

The organizations also point out that the current FEC rules conflict with long-established polices of the Federal Communications Commission for candidate coverage and do not logically follow the FEC’s own rulings that media companies do not violate the Act by providing free air time to candidates.

“The FEC thinks it should supplant the decision making of professional journalists with a bunch of bureaucratic rules,” said SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill, director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. “As is frequently the case, this type of well-intentioned but badly misguided action can have the opposite of its intended affect. We have fewer, rather than more, political debates and the public is poorly served in the process.”

Other media organizations joining the petition were: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.; Belo Corp.; Cox Enterprises, Inc.; Gannett Co., Inc.; National Association of Broadcasters; National Broadcasting Co., Inc.; News America Incorporated; The New York Times Company; Post-Newsweek Stations, Inc.; Radio and Television News Directors Association; and Tribune Company.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

University Officials Should Explain Why Adviser Was Dismissed – Or Rehire Her
The Society of Professional Journalists is demanding that the University of Texas at Tyler renew the contract of campus newspaper adviser Vanessa Curry if university officials cannot adequately explain why they refused to continue her contract.

Curry, an SPJ member who serves as adviser to The Patriot campus newspaper and as a journalism lecturer at the university, has said that she believes her contract was not renewed because the newspaper has been too aggressive in its coverage and in filing open records requests.

“This strikes at the very heart of the First Amendment as it is practiced on university and college campuses throughout the nation,” said SPJ Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs Jim Highland, director of print journalism at Western Kentucky University. “University presidents, by their very nature, function as public-relations agents, and that is not necessarily in the best interest of the public and the students. The newspaper serves as the only real watchdog on the university administration, and the newspaper adviser apparently was fired because the newspaper was doing its job.”

Curry, whose tenure as adviser produced several awards for the newspaper, is considering legal action against the university for eliminating her job and unveiling new policies that would violate constitutional protections of free speech. The university recently announced that its publications policy allows university administrators to decide “the character and policies of all student publications.”

Mabry, in a letter replying to an April 24 letter from SPJ leaders, denied that university officials wanted to control content of the newspaper and that Curry was the victim of retribution.

“We have not commented on any reasons for not offering Ms. Curry some future contract,” he wrote. “These are inferred reasons, and I strongly assert that the inferences drawn by others are completely wrong.”

Mabry added, “I do not mind aggressive student reporters at all, but wonder, in the first place, if
they have been all that aggressive in getting their stories. I actually have not seen the current group very often (until this issue arose). Furthermore, I am comfortable enough as a person and as a president – and also certain we run an above-the-board shop – such that I don’t worry about student articles (particularly since the vast majority have been favorable.”

SPJ leaders said the university should be more forthcoming about its reasons for not rehiring Curry because the circumstances surrounding the episode are suspicious.

“There is abundant evidence, albeit circumstantial, that she was sacked because the paper was aggressive,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “And even if there were other reasons, the administration should have tried to work out things rather than sending the message that students who question the administration are subject to retribution.”

Highland said, “I take this very seriously, having faced this problem on our campus several years ago. I can understand the problem the adviser is having. I will recommend at Saturday’s meeting of the SPJ Board of Directors that we appoint a task force to visit the University of Texas at Tyler, make findings of fact, and make those findings available to the public.”

Journalists or advocates who wish to support Curry’s argument may contact University President Rodney H. Mabry at University of Texas at Tyler, 3900 University Blvd., Tyler, TX 75799 or at 903/566-7119.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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