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California Governor Vetoes Prisoner Interview Bill

FOI Alert Volume 4 Issue 5 (1998-99)

California Governor Gray Davis has vetoed legislation to restore the right of journalists to interview specified state prisoners face to face. AB 1440 was approved by large margins in the state legislature, and drew editorial support from the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune, among others.

In his message vetoing the measure, the governor said the bill would give journalists "virtually unlimited access" to convicted felons, adding that they already had "ample opportunities" to interview convicts through other means than face-to-face interviews. He said the bill would give journalists "greater access than even members of the prisoner's own family," enhance prisoners' celebrity and cause "further pain to the victims and their loved ones."

"Moreover," the governor's message said, "this bill is inconsistent with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners."

Media supporters of AB 1440 had contended that the issue was not one of the prisoner's right to contact the news media but journalists' ability to cover the prisons effectively. The state had allowed face-to-face interviews with specified prisoners for more than 20 years before the practice was ended unilaterally in the fall of 1995 --first informally and later by a change in regulations.

Tim Graham, president of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which had been in the forefront of the campaign to overturn the interview restrictions, said today, "We are terribly disappointed that the governor has chosen to veto a bill that passed both houses with overwhelming bipartisan support. It's sad that Gray Davis the governor is not proving to be as good a friend of either the First Amendment or an informed electorate as he was while campaigning for his current position."

(This item was submitted by Peter Sussman of the Northern California SPJ Pro Chapter.)

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