Monday, November 29, 2004

Journalists' group launches open-government site

The new Web site of The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government is intended to serve as a resource for journalists seeking to keep current on open-government developments or to learn more about access issues at the federal level. CJOG is a year-old alliance of more than 30 journalism organizations concerned about growing government secrecy.

Eagle Tribune calls for toughening open meeting laws in Mass.

As the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association -- of which I am executive director -- prepares to file legislation this week that would toughen enforcement of open meeting laws in the state, William B. Ketter, editor-in-chief of Eagle-Tribune newspapers, publishes an editorial backing the bill. An excerpt:
"Massachusetts, the state that gave birth to American democracy, should be embarrassed. The shot heard around the world at Lexington and Concord in 1775 has become a hollow shell of silence in the very place that fired it.

"State lawmakers and Gov. Mitt Romney can change that in next year's legislative session. The publishers association has drafted bills to impose mandatory fines on officials who violate open-meeting and public- record laws and refuse to comply unless ordered to do so by a court.

"We implore the Legislature and the governor to get behind this renewed effort to strengthen the state and local open-meeting and record laws. The people of Massachusetts have the most at stake."

MBTA's rejection of ads violated free speech, court rules

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's rejection of ads promoting marijuana reform violated the First Amendment, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today. Rejection of the ads -- submitted by Change the Climate Inc. -- constituted viewpoint discrimination, the court said. "The bedrock principle of viewpoint neutrality demands that the state not suppress speech where the real rationale for the restriction is disagreement with the underlying ideology or perspective that the speech expresses," the court explained. In the same decision, the circuit court ruled that the MBTA did not violate the First Amendment in rejecting ads from a religious group.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Prosecutor drops harassment charge against reporter

Citing a lack of evidence, Durham, N.C., District Attorney Jim Hardin has dismissed a harassment charge against a newspaper reporter who was trying to interview a woman for a story, the News & Observer reports. Hardin said in a news release that the charge against reporter Demorris Lee had "significant implications" regarding "the First Amendment issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press." He called for Durham's judicial leaders to begin requiring that police investigate allegations brought against the media before charges are filed. [via Romanesko]

Press freedom under siege worldwide

Journalists are being murdered and their publications attacked at an alarming rate, says the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers in its half-year review of press freedom worldwide.
"Thirty-five journalists have been killed in the past six months and 63 so far this year, an increase from 53 for the whole of 2003. The war in Iraq, where seven journalists were killed in the second half of 2004 and 23 in the full year, was a major reason the death toll in 2004 surpassed that of 2003. But Iraq was not alone: eight journalists have been murdered in the Philippines in the past six months, making it even deadlier for journalists than Iraq."

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Declassified docs detail Ford's FOIA veto battle

President Gerald R. Ford wanted to sign the Freedom of Information Act strengthening amendments passed by Congress 30 years ago, but concern about leaks (shared by his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and deputy Richard Cheney) and legal arguments that the bill was unconstitutional (marshaled by government lawyer Antonin Scalia, among others) persuaded Ford to veto the bill, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive to mark the 30th anniversary of the veto override. On Nov. 20, 1974, the House voted to override Ford's veto by a margin of 371 to 31; on Nov. 21, the Senate followed suit by a 65 to 27 vote, amending the FOIA to provide core protections including judicial review of executive secrecy claims.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Hawaii officials unaware of public's right to know

Many government officials are unaware of Hawai'i's Sunshine Law, says a report in Ka Leo O Hawai'i, a publication of the University of Hawaii.

Private community adopts FOI law

Bella Vista, a private community in northern Arkansas, has adopted the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the Hot Springs Village Voice reports.
"According to Linda Caldwell, general manager and editor of the Weekly Vista in Bella Vista, the property owners were responsible for the adoption of the act. 'There was great pressure from the property owners,' Caldwell said. 'There have been some requests for information, specifically salary levels. In the past they POA gave salary ranges, but nothing specific.'"

Illinois press group seeks to keep records open

The Illinois Press Association will ask Gov. Blagojevich to block newly passed legislation that would allow people with certain non-violent drug and prostitution convictions to cleanse their records so they can more easily find jobs, the Chicago Sun Times reports. Backers of the legislation contend it would ease the transition into the workplace for thousands of ex-inmates with non- violent criminal records. But the press association says criminal convictions should remain accessible for anyone to see.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Of Nazis, Novaks and the First Amendment

Sometimes First Amendment rights can be difficult to defend, says Martin Fishgold, president of the International Labor Communications Association. "It is difficult to defend the First Amendment rights in the Valerie Plame case of syndicated columnist Robert Novak and New York Times Reporter Judith Miller, both of whom have been used over and over again by the Bush Administration to sell unpopular policies, against all ethical journalistic practices," Fishgold writes.

Nevertheless, he says, defending First Amendment rights must be an absolute. "If you open the door for interpretation, you open the door for abuse of the privilege. From my point of view, one must allow the Nazis and the Novaks to slip in under the coverage if one wants to defend First Amendment rights."

Federal shield law unlikely, says LA Times columnist

Reporters in the United States are under siege, says Los Angeles Times media columnist David Shaw. But while some are calling for Congress to enact a federal shield law, "a Republican-dominated Congress seems unlikely to do that," Shaw says, "especially at a time when public hostility toward the media makes it unlikely that the media will be able to rally much support for such legislation."

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sen. Dodd introduces federal shield law

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) Friday introduced a federal shield law that would provide an "absolute protection" for reporters' confidential sources. The "Free Speech Protection Act of 2004" protects against compelled disclosure for sources, regardless of whether the source was promised confidentiality, Dodd said.

An editorial in today's Springfield Republican endorsed the measure:
"The notion of protecting the press is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Democratic nor Republican. Through a functioning free press, the public is provided a window onto the workings of the government - at all levels. To impede the work of the free press is to block the flow of information to the people."

Friday, November 19, 2004

Assault on freedom of the press

That is what Lou Dobbs called it last night, as he discussed the contempt convictions of Rhode Island television reporter Jim Taricani and New York Times reporter Judith Miller last night with Miller, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and U.S. News & World Report Editor Mort Zuckerman.

Sen. Dodd expected to introduce federal shield law

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) is expected to introduce a bill in Congress soon calling for a federal shield law, Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp reports. Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing confidential sources.
"I'm told that something is going to be introduced by Sen. Dodd this week," said George Freeman, an attorney for The New York Times, who has been overseeing that paper's response to several subpoenas, including those seeking phone records and source information from reporter Judith Miller. "I understand [Dodd's bill] is quite good from a substantive point of view -- absolute protection for confidential sources."

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Reporter guilty of contempt for refusing to reveal source

In Providence, R.I., today, U.S. District Chief Judge Ernest C. Torres found investigative reporter Jim Taricani in criminal contempt for refusing to reveal the source of an undercover videotape that aired on his television station, the Providence Journal reports. The judge scheduled sentencing for Dec. 9. Taricani faces up to six months in prison.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Former vonBulow prosecutor pursues reporter's source

On the eve of TV reporter Jim Taricani's contempt trial for refusing to say who gave him a copy of a secret FBI videotape, the Providence Journal profiles Marc Desisto, the special prosecutor assigned to identify the source of the leaked tape.

ProJo wins legal fees in public records suit

A Rhode Island Superior Court judge ordered the Town of North Kingstown to repay The Providence Journal the cost of attorney fees the newspaper spent on a lawsuit to obtain public information withheld by the town Police Department, the newspaper reports. But the judge denied the newspaper's request that the town pay a $1,000 fine, saying there was no evidence presented that town officials willfully violated the state's Access to Public Records Act.

NBC News president calls for federal shield law

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, NBC News President Neal Shapiro calls on Congress to enact a federal reporter shield law.
Unfortunately, there is no federal statute that supports the rights of journalists to protect confidential sources. The law provides confidentiality for psychotherapists, lawyers and doctors. It is high time journalists were added to the list. If sources can't be assured of confidentiality, they will be reluctant to come forward to the press. And if they don't confide in the press, wrongdoing could remain undisclosed. The majority of states have reporter shield laws on the books. We need the same on the federal level.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

New Jersey plan to seal data runs afoul of health groups

A plan to shield New Jersey government records from the eyes of terrorists is drawing objections from environmental and public health advocates, who say it also would keep workers and residents in the dark about potential exposure to hazardous materials, the Star-Ledger reports. The proposed regulations, designed to clarify anti-terror limits on the state's Open Public Records Act, prohibit agencies from releasing any plans that detail a building's inner workings.

They also make secret all records of airports, mass transit facilities, bridges, tunnels, public utilities, emergency-response facilities, arenas, stadiums, state-owned buildings and storage sites for hazardous materials, the report says. Also confidential would be records showing where explosives or pharmaceuticals are stored, how nuclear power plants operate, how emergency-response teams are deployed, or that disclose the outbreak of contagious diseases among animals.

To gain access to any of these records, the report says, a member of the public would need permission from the attorney general's Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force and the head of a Cabinet-level state agency. The agency head would be free to release a record only if there were a "bona fide need for public access."

Monday, November 15, 2004

Gonzales' record on press freedoms and right to know

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today released Gonzales, Press Freedoms and the Public's Right to Know, its evaluation of the likely impact of Attorney General Nominee Alberto Gonzales on press freedoms and the public's right to know. RCFP researched Gonzales' performance as a judge on the Texas Supreme Court from January 1999 to December 2000 and as White House counsel since January 2001. It concluded that Gonzales' role as White House counsel reveals a penchant for strictly regulating access to government and executive-branch information, while his term on the Texas high court indicates a recognition of the First Amendment interests in newsgathering and reporting.

Friday, November 12, 2004

California voters add Sunshine to state constitution

California voters added a sunshine amendment to the state constitution Nov. 2, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports. "Eighty-three percent of California voters endorsed Proposition 59, adding a right-to-know provision to the state constitution. California joins Florida, Louisiana, Montana, and New Hampshire in having freedom of information provisions in their constitutions," the report said.

Columnist: Our not-so-free press

We read of China and Zimbabwe throwing journalists in jail, but similar abuses are unfolding in the United States, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.
"The first reporter likely to go to jail is Jim Taricani, a television reporter for the NBC station in Providence, R.I. Mr. Taricani obtained and broadcast, completely legally, a videotape of a city official as he accepted an envelope full of cash.

"U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres found Mr. Taricani in contempt for refusing to identify the person he got the videotape from, and the judge fined him $1,000 a day. That hasn't broken Mr. Taricani, so Judge Torres has set a hearing for Nov. 18 to decide whether to squeeze him further by throwing him in jail."

Norwood officials violate open meeting law, DA rules

Officials in Norwood, Mass., who are working to bring a YMCA to town were found to have violated the state open meeting law when they met with Y representatives behind closed doors, the Daily News Transcript reports. The Norfolk County district attorney's office ruled that the team of town officials conducting negotiations on the Y broke the law by holding the session with the YMCA to consider deals related to a long-term lease of town-owned property.

What makes newspapers good?

Former New York Times managing editor Gerald Boyd says it well:
"Good newspapers are unwavering in their commitment to their community, whether that 'community' is a national audience, a big city or a small town. They serve as a kind of glue that provides various factions with the same information so that they can unite or divide based on their views.

"They are linchpins for change, not for their own personal gain or to buck the status quo. Instead, they understand their mission: to use all of their collective talent to make the community a better place. "

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

SJC hears arguments today in Cape paper's suit against sheriff

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hears arguments today on whether the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office on Cape Cod is required under public records law to release the identities of more than 200 reserve deputy sheriffs appointed by Sheriff James Cummings since 1999, the Cape Cod Times reports.

The reserve deputies, as members of the nonprofit, charitable Barnstable County Deputy Sheriff's Association, have a right to privacy, the sheriff argues. They have no law enforcement training or power, the sheriff contends, performing fund-raising and charitable work on behalf of the sheriff for senior citizen and youth groups.

The Cape Cod Times filed the lawsuit last year when Cummings declined to release the names. It maintains the sheriff also has the ability to call the reserve deputies to active duty. It says the public has a right to know who was appointed by the sheriff and allowed to carry badges as reserve deputies.

According to the report in the Cape Cod Times, The Boston Herald recently filed a similar lawsuit seeking the names of reserve deputies in Middlesex County.