Sun not damaged by administration order against 2 writers, governor's lawyers say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Sun has not been hindered by an Ehrlich administration order barring state employees from talking to a reporter and columnist for the paper, attorneys for the governor argued in papers filed in federal court this week. The paper has been able to gather and disseminate news much as before, they said.

The Sun filed a federal lawsuit last month after the press office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. issued an order barring state employees from speaking with State House bureau chief David Nitkin or columnist Michael Olesker.

The attorney general's office, representing Ehrlich, filed a motion to dismiss the suit late last month, and The Sun in turn has filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to have the ban lifted. A hearing has been scheduled for next week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"While the harm experienced by Mr. Nitkin and Mr. Olesker is negligible, the harm experienced by their employer is so attenuated and remote as to be undetectable," the papers argue.

Nitkin wrote 43 articles about state government in the eight weeks before the Nov. 18 ban and 43 in the eight weeks since, according to court papers. Other reporters have asked or e-mailed questions to state officials on Nitkin's behalf, the papers say.

No special privileges

Journalists, the governor's attorneys said, do not have the right to special privileges that go beyond what the general public enjoys. Ordinary citizens would not typically have their calls promptly returned by high government officials, the papers say.

Ehrlich's press office issued the order, asserting that the two writers were "failing to objectively report" on state issues. Nitkin had written a series of articles reporting on the state's proposed sale of 836 acres of preserved forest land in St. Mary's County to Willard Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, for the price that the state paid for it in 2003.

'Unprecedented'

"It is unprecedented and inappropriate for a public official to retaliate against a citizen for saying something he doesn't like," Sun attorney Stephanie Abrutyn said yesterday. "The First Amendment prohibits that."

Last week, some of the most prominent journalism organizations in America filed a brief supporting The Sun's position in the case. They argued that if permitted, the governor's action was likely to have a chilling effect on smaller news organizations less able to deal with having two journalists banned from talking to state employees.

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