Publisher threatens legal action over revoked press pass

Kacey Deamer | Newsgathering | Feature | March 28, 2011

The San Francisco Police Department in the past 10 months has revoked several press passes previously granted to online media outlets. The department's policy has not changed; officials are simply beginning to enforce it, the department said.

However, the founder of one of the six news outlets denied renewal of their press passes, online newspaper the San Francisco Sentinel, argued that, under the police department's policy, the Sentinel should not have been denied.

"It's actually wrong on their own terms," said Pat Murphy, founder of the Sentinel. Murphy explained that the department had said they searched the Sentinel's website for coverage of "breaking police news, as they decide it," during the past year and found nothing. "I did my own search and we certainly covered a street shooting, both the story and photos right after it broke," Murphy said.

"I'm going to do everything I can to bring a class-action lawsuit," Murphy said of his plans to take legal action. He also noted that "the constitutionality of the police trying to determine what breaking news is for every member of the media in the country needs to be clarified. I think that it's us, not them, who have a right to determine that."

San Francisco Police Department spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield said the department has had problems with unauthorized use of general press credentials, citing examples of them being used to gain access to concerts and mayoral events, and even to receive free tickets. To prevent such misuse, the department has decided to more closely follow its own guidelines in renewing passes and granting new ones, he added.

As requests for press pass renewal come in, the department is "doing the research to see if [the media have] done what was required, which is regular police and fire stories," he said.

According the the department's press pass form: "Only persons employed by newsgathering media who are required to cover breaking news and to pass through police and fire lines on a regular basis qualify for a press pass."

"The press passes are for breaking police and fire news," Dangerfield said, and are given "to bloggers as well as the mainstream media." The news outlets that are not regularly covering breaking police and fire news are those that are denied renewal. Thus far, six news outlets have been denied renewal. It is easy to follow the guidelines, Dangerfield said: "In this city, you can write a story about us every day."

Dangerfield said in response to some of the media reactions: "The people that are protesting I believe are legitimate media, not a question in my mind, it's just that they're not doing police and fire stories."