On Wednesday, a three-judge appeals court panel rejected this newspaper's effort to overturn Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s order banning state employees from talking to a Sun reporter and a columnist. Why? It's clear from reading the panel's 16-page opinion that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court judges could not make a distinction between the "rough and tumble" of media access to political figures - a governor granting a scoop, for instance, to a favored reporter - and Mr. Ehrlich's 15-month-old gag order.
Lawyers for The Sun had argued that Mr. Ehrlich's directive was something altogether different - a punitive and retaliatory effort against The Sun "for the exercise of its First Amendment rights." That's why this newspaper's lawsuit was joined by numerous free press advocates, from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Ironically, The Sun's case was undercut by its journalistic accomplishments. The judges noted that reporter David Nitkin (now the paper's Maryland political editor) was able to write as much about state government after the ban as he was before, and thus the ban's consequences seemed relatively minor. This is something of a backhanded compliment to Mr. Nitkin and to his newsroom colleagues whose labors sometimes included the peculiar duty of relaying his questions to, and returning with answers from, senior government officials (who dared not incur the governor's wrath by speaking directly to the banned Mr. Nitkin).
It's unfortunate that Mr. Ehrlich has seized upon the court decision as an endorsement of his ill-informed views of journalism. He said the ruling was about "journalistic integrity" and "fair and objective" reporting. That's simply not true. The integrity of journalists was never in question, and not a syllable of the decision criticizes the Sun's handling of news or commentary now or ever. The court's opinion does not endorse Mr. Ehrlich's brand of pettiness; it simply rejects any court-ordered intervention.
Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin has assured his staff that the decision will "not impede our determination to report fairly and aggressively on public officials, their actions and their policies." For this newspaper's readers, that may be the only decision that matters.