Sun backed in lawsuit challenging Ehrlich ban

A coalition of the nation's leading news organizations filed a legal brief yesterday supporting The Sun in its lawsuit against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., contending that the governor's ban on two Sun journalists was an act "characteristic of repressive regimes."

The 27-page amicus brief was filed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., by lawyers representing the New York Times Co., The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Time Inc., CNN, the E.W. Scripps Co. and Advance Publications Inc.

An array of news professional associations also joined the brief.

"The First Amendment is designed to protect the press and the public against governmental attempts to restrict speech disapproved of by those in power," the brief said. "Yet the Governor's order, by his own admission, seeks to do precisely that: he seeks to coerce journalists into providing coverage that is pleasing to him on pain of being subject to an official boycott if they do not."

The brief argues that Ehrlich cannot exclude journalists from the normal channels of news- gathering - such as interviewing state officials - based on the content of their reporting. The Sun is not asking for special treatment or to have every phone call returned, the brief said, but merely to have access to the ordinary channels available to all other reporters.

Ehrlich's ban harms not only The Sun - in its ability to assign reporters of its choosing to the State House - but also other news organizations, the brief said. "In short, the retaliation against The Sun's reporter and columnist has an undeniable chilling effect on all those who report on the affairs of Maryland state government," the brief said.

"This official boycott is offensive to the most basic principles of the First Amendment," the brief argued, noting that it compromises, if not destroys, the journalists' ability to perform the constitutionally protected function of reporting on and writing about government.

"This kind of official control of the press is characteristic of repressive regimes, but it is alien to nations founded on principles of free speech and free press," the lawyers wrote. "It is abhorrent to our Constitution and should be repudiated by this Court."

A spokeswoman for Ehrlich declined to comment on the brief filed yesterday. Kevin Enright, spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which represents the governor in the suit, also declined comment.

Numerous press associations also signed the brief, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. Other professional organizations, including the state press associations of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, signed as well.

Ehrlich's ban, now six months old, forbids state executive branch employees from speaking with Sun columnist Michael Olesker and Maryland political editor David Nitkin. The ban was imposed after Nitkin disclosed a state proposal to sell 836 acres of preserved forestland in St. Mary's County to Willard Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, in a deal that could have netted him millions of dollars in tax breaks.

The ban "essentially allows the governor to create an enemies list," said Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee of ASNE.

"Governor Ehrlich has instructed public officials who are paid by taxpayers to refrain from imparting information to the public. ... If it can be done to two journalists for the Baltimore Sun, others can be singled out."

The Sun filed suit in December to have the ban lifted. In February, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. rejected that request and granted Ehrlich's motion to dismiss the case. The paper is appealing both decisions.

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