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Home > SPJ News > Ashcroft speeches should be more accessible to the public and media

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Ashcroft speeches should be more accessible to the public and media

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
9/18/2003


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CONTACT:Charles Davis, co-chair of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, (573) 882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu
Joel Campbell, co-chair of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, (801) 422-2125 or joel_campbell@byu.edu

TAMPA - Attorney General John Ashcroft should make his appearances in defense of the U.S. Patriot Act more accessible to the public and to reporters from all news media, the Society of Professional Journalists said at its national convention last weekend.

Days later, Ashcroft gave print reporters in Louisville about five minutes to ask questions. It’s apparently the first time in his nationwide tour in support of the Patriot Act that he has done so. SPJ applauds Ashcroft’s slight change of heart. We encourage him to do more to open his appearances to greater public participation and to give all reporters more time to ask questions and get substantive answers.

The Patriot Act quickly passed in the weeks after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. The act grants federal law officers additional powers; critics say it infringes on civil liberties. Ashcroft’s speeches have been delivered to law enforcement officers who share his views, with admission to the speeches conditioned on agreement with Ashcroft’s position. Post-speech interviews have been granted only to television reporters. Print reporters have been escorted by police from buildings where the attorney general has spoken.

“Your refusal to allow unscripted questions from the print press limits public understanding of these important issues, and your selective public access policy allows your office to further control the debate and to present a misleading portrayal of the event itself,” said the Sept. 13 letter from SPJ to Ashcroft. SPJ’s membership includes print and broadcast journalists.

The letter was outgoing SPJ President Robert Leger’s final act before handing the gavel to Mac McKerral, editor of the Business Journal Serving Greater Tampa Bay, at the Society’s national convention in Tampa. Leger is editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader in Ashcroft’s hometown.

The full text of the letter follows.

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

** SPJ letter to Ashcroft **



Sept. 13, 2003
John Ashcroft
U.S. Attorney General
950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20530
Mr. Ashcroft:

The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest association of working journalists representing nearly 10,000 print, broadcast and online reporters and editors, urges you to revisit your office’s access policies as you tour the nation in support of even greater powers under the U.S. Patriot Act. As it stands, the policy limits media and public access to your speeches and pre-selects attendees, allowing your office to frame the debate in the most favorable terms.

In recent days, print reporters have been denied access to your Q&A sessions following speaking engagements. According to media reports and statements by your public information officers, the following ground rules have been enforced at your recent appearances in support of the Patriot Act: while print reporters are allowed access to the formal event, one-on-one opportunities are offered only to local broadcast outlets; protesters are kept outside the event; and public access is conditioned on agreement with your position on the Act.

The debate over the U.S. Patriot Act is a matter of significant public interest. To restrict access to the public and certain members of the press turns what should be your public appearances into staged events seemingly designed to reflect widespread agreement with your position. Your refusal to allow unscripted questions from the print press limits public understanding of these important issues, and your selective public access policy allows your office to further control the debate and to present a misleading portrayal of the event itself.

SPJ urges you to treat these important discussions the same way that other public officials have handled public speaking engagements. First, there should be no distinction made between any member of the news media wishing to cover the event or interview you. Second, the events should be open to all citizens wanting to participate. Agreement with your position should not be a criterion for access.

Sincerely,
Robert Leger
President, SPJ
Editorial Page Editor, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader

-END-

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