Ehrlich seeks to control press through intimidation


SOME BASIC FACTS have been neglected in the debate over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s attempt to block the access of two Sun writers to information from state agencies. To some it appears that The Sun has overreached by claiming greater rights of access than the public. The opposite is true. It's the governor who is violating the First Amendment.

In November, Mr. Ehrlich directed executive branch agencies not to respond to inquiries from David Nitkin, The Sun's State House bureau chief, or Michael Olesker, a columnist, because "both are failing to objectively report on any issue dealing with the Ehrlich-Steele administration." The Sun challenged this order in federal court on the ground it violated the First Amendment by preventing the journalists from doing their jobs and by punishing them for critical reporting. U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

There is no legal basis for an argument that the First Amendment grants the press more privileges than the public. Under the Constitution, journalists have no more right of access to public officials or documents than anyone else. But neither do they have less right.

Lost in the discussion about the case is the list of state public information officers who received Mr. Ehrlich's order, which his lawyers filed in response to Judge Quarles' request. It's a mixed bag of press spokesmen and women mingled with marketing and "outreach" specialists, minor factotums and a few surprises.

Two of the recipients are constitutionally independent of him: an information specialist in the Court Information Office and an aide to the state comptroller. One is the uniformed public information officer of the Maryland National Guard. Another is listed as the chief of communications and strategic planning for academic policy in the Education Department. One is Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime Ehrlich aide who anonymously spread ugly rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The list of 66 public information officers includes representatives of newsworthy agencies such as the departments of Planning, General Services, Business and Economic Development, Transportation, Human Resources, Public Safety and Correctional Services, Health and Mental Hygiene, Natural Resources, Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the Environment and Insurance, the state police, the Motor Vehicles Administration and the Higher Education Commission.

But it also includes agencies that seldom get attention from reporters, such as the College Savings Plan, the Aviation Administration, the Science and Volunteerism Office, the Department of Aging and the Office of Crime Control and Prevention. True, specialists in these agencies doubtless spend a lot of time grinding out news releases, but they are primarily using the press as a vehicle to reach the public with useful information.

Curiously missing from the list are representatives of such major agencies as the departments of Budget and Management, Juvenile Services and Veterans Affairs.

Also submitted to the court was a list of 122 State House employees who received the order. How should they and their colleagues in the agencies deal with reporters? Surely the Ehrlich administration's overt hostility to the press generally will make them cautious about speaking with anyone resembling a reporter, just in case.

So the question is whether the governor's order really was intended to prevent two allegedly hostile journalists from getting questions answered -- since they were hardly likely to call many of these offices -- or it was intended to intimidate them and other reporters who might write articles critical of Mr. Ehrlich. And, given the nature of most of these agencies, were the two journalists cut off from asking questions that any person might ask? If so, it was Mr. Ehrlich who violated the First Amendment.

He gave credence to these conclusions when he said his order was intended to have a "chilling effect." That's the term for a warning to the troublesome to stop it, or else -- especially when it comes from a chief executive who equates respect for his office with supporting his programs.

At this point, the issue becomes much more than a spat or worse between a governor and a newspaper. Mr. Ehrlich's attempt to subdue two journalists whose writings he considers inaccurate (read: unfriendly) as punishment to them and a lesson to others is eerily similar to the repressive measures being taken against the Russian press by President Vladimir V. Putin.

Exaggeration? Perhaps. But it is only a matter of degree. Control of the media is a vital power to any tin-pot tyrant who seeks to impose authoritarian rule or any two-bit political boss struggling to maintain control of his fiefdom.

Mr. Ehrlich's attempt to decide who can cover his administration and who can't indeed has a chilling effect -- on all of us.

James S. Keat is a retired Sun editor who remains active on freedom of information issues.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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