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Court considers Hustler publisher's battlefield access suit

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Jan 8, 2002    

Court considers Hustler publisher’s battlefield access suit

  • Larry Flynt asked a judge to force the Pentagon to let his magazine’s reporters join American troops on combat raids after military officials disband pool coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

Larry Flynt’s effort to place Hustler reporters among troops in Afghanistan got its first hearing in court last week as the publisher asked a federal judge to force military officials to grant journalists access to combat missions.

“The press has always been able to accompany troops into battle,” Flynt told the Associated Press after the Jan. 4 hearing. “If I win, everyone wins.”

But U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman seemed skeptical of Flynt’s claims of a right of access to the battlefields. While acknowledging that the press served as the eyes and ears of the public, he said the Marines, in particular, have brought reporters on several missions.

The nation’s mainstream publications have been hesitant to join Flynt’s lawsuit, particularly as the Pentagon disbanded the press pool system on Dec. 27 and began allowing open coverage in Afghanistan.

Flynt himself asked Pentagon officials twice for access to the troops, first on Oct. 30 and again on Nov. 12. He filed his lawsuit after officials offered the publisher access only to food drops and air strikes. The suit contends the First Amendment guarantees reporters a right to cover combat from the front lines.

But John Griffths, a lawyer for the Justice Department, told Friedman during the hearing that “the coverage in Afghanistan has been extensive. It’s almost impossible to turn on a television or open a newspaper without seeing reporters in Kabul and Kandahar and Tora Bora. . . . The First Amendment does not obligate the federal government to assist the media in its news-gathering.”

Paul Cambria, Flynt’s attorney, said the public’s right “to know exactly what is happening on the combat field is as important as knowing what is happening in our courtrooms.”

Friedman noted that no court has granted such a right of access. A district court considered the matter important during the Persian Gulf War but dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Nation, Harper’s and other magazines because the war had ended.

Friedman said it appeared to him that the war has been covered extensively in the nation’s newspapers and magazines and on television.

“I’m really wondering whether access is in fact being denied,” he said.

(Flynt v. Rumsfeld; Media counsel: Paul Cambria, Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury & Cambria, New York City) PT

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