Journalism groups back Sun's fight against ban

Some of the most prominent journalists' organizations in America filed a joint brief this week supporting The Sun in a case they see as important in buttressing First Amendment rights of reporters and the public.

The Sun filed a federal lawsuit last month after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s press office issued an order banning 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 Jan. 28 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"This official boycott is offensive to the most basic principles of the First Amendment," states the brief filed by attorney Kevin T. Baine of the Washington firm Williams & Connolly. "It punishes two journalists based on the content of their coverage. It compromises, if not destroys, their ability to perform their constitutionally assigned and protected function. ... 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 friend-of-the-court brief was signed by the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Association of Capitol Editors and Reporters, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

"We're really heartened to have the support of the biggest and most important journalism organizations both in the nation and the region - and in both print and broadcast," Sun editor Timothy A. Franklin said yesterday.

"Our legal case against the governor is not some frivolous, sandbox matter, as he has been trying to portray it. The fact that many of the nation's and region's major journalism organizations -print and broadcast - have joined forces on this case is a powerful illustration of the profound constitutional issues raised by the governor's retaliatory act to cut off access to taxpayer-paid state employees."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor would have no comment on the brief, "seeing as though the issue remains in litigation." Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's chief legal counsel, said he had read the brief but had no comment on it.

Ehrlich has said publicly as recently as this week that The Sun has fabricated articles on its front page that call his integrity into question. The Sun has clarified a Page One headline but has found no evidence of fabrication in Sun news articles involving the governor.

Ehrlich's press office issued the order Nov. 18, saying 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 J. Hackerman, a politically connected construction company owner, for the same price the state paid for it in 2003.

A front-page map that accompanied another article written by Nitkin about the potential sale of 3,000 acres of state land incorrectly highlighted all 450,000 acres of state preservation land. The artist's error was corrected the next day.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said her organization wanted to show its disdain for what Ehrlich has tried to do to Nitkin and Olesker and that she hopes the court rules that the man holding the highest political office in the state cannot restrict public access to information in that way.

"I would hate to think politicians around the country would get the idea they can ... retaliate against content they disagree with by ostracizing individual reporters," Dalglish said. "They're trying to dictate how a constitutionally protected news organization is run. That is not the role of a public official."

Andrew Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said he hopes progress is made soon in the dispute between the newspaper and the governor.

"In its most basic form, there are public officials who are paid by the taxpayers to impart information about their government, and they're not doing their jobs, and they're not doing them at the direction of the governor," he said.

George White, executive director of the MDDC Press Association, released a statement yesterday explaining his group's participation in the challenge to Ehrlich's ban. "The news industry believes this case is much more than a dispute between the governor and The Sun," he said.