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Society Condemns Terre Haute Penitentiary's Restrictive Media Access Policy
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contacts: Bob Lystad, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1500; Charles Tobin, assistant senior counsel for Gannett Co. Inc., 703/284-6933; Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323
INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations, including USA Today and National Public Radio, issued a letter today urging Warden Harley Lappin to drop restrictions on journalists who interview inmates at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
Lappin requires journalists to sign an agreement that places several conditions on their interviews with inmates. The Society opposes restrictions in the agreement stating that journalists cannot disclose the actual recordings of taped interviews with inmates and that no information given by an inmate about another inmate may published.
“The First Amendment calls for a free press, not one that's shackled with the clamps of prior restraint,” said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and regional editor at the Dayton Daily News. “The warden's policies try to tell journalists what they can and can't report and how they should do their job. We strongly urge the warden to modify his policies immediately.”
The Society and the other news organizations signing the letter also oppose a penitentiary policy that permits prison officials to deny future requests for inmate interviews if they believe a member of the news media failed to follow the conditions being imposed.
“The warden should allow access and not impose unnecessary restrictions on newsworthy information and the public's right to know,” said Bob Dubill, executive editor for USA Today.
Paul Walter, First Amendment legal counsel for the The Dallas Morning News, said Lappin's conditions hinder news organizations from fulfilling their obligation to inform their audiences about important issues.
“We believe the guidelines allowed by the warden deny the news media access to the prison that is required under the First Amendment,” Walter said. “The news media cannot do the job it has under the First Amendment when it is subjected to unreasonable restrictions.”
Opposition to the Terre Haute penitentiary's media access policies come at a pivotal time. The penitentiary houses federal inmate David Hammer, who was scheduled to be executed Nov. 15 but recently was granted a stay of execution. If Hammer is executed, it will be the first time since 1963 that the federal government has executed an inmate.
“Given the historic nature of this event, it is simply unconscionable that the warden would try to restrict the amount of information that is disseminated to the public about this particular death row inmate,” said Robert Lystad, First Amendment legal counsel for the Society. “The warden's policy also sets a terrible precedent for future requests to interview federal inmates face-to-face.
“The public deserves to know as much about David Hammer and other federal inmates as possible,” Lystad added. “That includes being able to hear the words David Hammer speaks, and to see his demeanor as he nears his fate.”
Joining the Society in signing the letter sent to Lappin are USA Today, based in Arlington, Va., National Public Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Ind., The Dallas Morning News, the Hoosier State Press Association in Indianapolis and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va.
Copies of the letter were sent to Attorney General Janet Reno, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the director of the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Department of Justice.