Sun appeals ruling in suit against the governor

The Sun filed an appeal yesterday in its lawsuit with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., one month after a federal judge ruled the governor has the right to ban state employees from speaking with two writers for the newspaper.

In a one-page notice, the paper appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. A three-judge panel of the court will hear oral arguments in the case, and an opinion could come a few months after that.

Last month, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. dismissed The Sun's lawsuit against the governor and refused to lift the ban, now four months old, that targets State House bureau chief David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker.

The newspaper said it could not let the ruling stand.

"We have this terrible precedent that was set by Judge Quarles," said Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin. "We think he ignored the First Amendment arguments in the case and misinterpreted the level of access we're seeking. We're not asking for special access. We're just asking for the same level of access as every other citizen."

Last November, Ehrlich's office banned state employees from speaking with Nitkin and Olesker, saying they were "failing to objectively report" on the administration.

The Sun argues that the ban violates the First Amendment rights of the two journalists by denying them the same opportunities to seek information as other news organizations and citizens.

The paper also says the two are being punished for their speech. The ban was imposed after Nitkin had written articles detailing the state's plan to sell 836 acres of preserved forestland in St. Mary's County to Willard Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, in a transaction that could have netted him millions in tax breaks.

The Sun filed suit in December to have the ban lifted. Quarles rejected that request and granted Ehrlich's motion to dismiss the case. The paper is appealing both decisions.

Franklin said he is confident the 4th Circuit will see the case differently than Quarles.

"There are profound constitutional issues raised by the ban," Franklin said, adding that he did not want to let stand a ruling that allows government officials to "blacklist" journalists. "We're looking forward to getting another hearing on the issues raised by the case."

A spokeswoman for Ehrlich said the governor's office had no comment on the appeal yesterday.

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