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Home > SPJ News > Free Press Takes Hit With Recent Court Rulings

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Free Press Takes Hit With Recent Court Rulings

SPJ News
2/16/2005


CONTACT: Irwin Gratz, SPJ President, (207) 874-6570 or igratz@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- Society of Professional Journalists President Irwin Gratz today issued the following statement:

Yesterday was a rough day for the news media in the courts. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld contempt citations against Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine. Both are withholding information about their news sources from a federal prosecutor.

And, in Maryland, a federal judge has dismissed a case filed by the Baltimore Sun, which has seen two of its staffers, David Nitkin and Michael Olesker, essentially blacklisted by Maryland’s governor.

Both decisions tilt the balance of power in press-government relationships in favor of the government. This should trouble ordinary Americans, who have less likelihood of uncovering on their own stories about government waste and malfeasance the news media tracks down regularly.

The Miller and Cooper decision points again to the weakness in federal protection for reporter-source relationships that are a legacy of the “Branzburg vs. Hayes” Supreme Court ruling of 1972. Proposals are now before both houses of Congress for a federal “Shield Law.” The Society of Professional Journalists is studying the details of these proposals to see if either would improve the protection for sources that’s vital for investigative reporting.

By dismissing the Baltimore Sun’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. has essentially upheld a principle that government officials can use the machinery of government to retaliate against members of the news media they disagree with. The judge claims the Sun was seeking special access beyond that granted the general public. But the news media acts as proxy for its audience. If this ruling stands, why couldn’t Gov. Erlich or other high elected official issue a similar executive order, barring state officials from speaking with any other interest group, or individual for that matter, whose comments in the public sphere the official found objectionable? The First Amendment implications seem as obvious as they are disturbing.

In addition the Judge’s ruling sanctions a back-door way for Erlich, and others, to interfere in the editorial decisions of the Sun by seeking to force the paper’s hand in its selection of staff to cover the Erlich Administration. This is another clear violation of the paper’s First Amendment’s rights.

The Society has already written Governor Erlich in this matter and filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the Sun’s behalf, and it stands ready to continue supporting the Sun in its future legal appeals.

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.

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