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Court orders sheriff and officials to allow reporter access to jail

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    NMU         ILLINOIS         Newsgathering         Apr 26, 2001    

Court orders sheriff and officials to allow reporter access to jail

  • When law enforcement officials banned a reporter from jail based on previous articles, their actions had a chilling effect on the First Amendment, according to a federal district court.

The exclusion of a reporter from a jail in retaliation for past articles violated the reporter’s First Amendment rights, a federal district court in Illinois ruled on April 3. Corrections officials must now allow the reporter access to the jail.

In its ruling, the court held that county sheriff Michael Sheahan and officials at the Cook County Jail in Chicago forbade reporter Tori Marlan access to the jail based on the content of two articles she had written in 1998. The articles, which appeared in the Chicago Reader, were critical of the jail’s strip-search procedure. Finding that their actions had a chilling effect on Marlan’s protected right to free speech, the court ordered officials to allow Marlan the same access they allowed other journalists.

“A reporter might well tone down a critical article if she feared that jail officials might terminate, or even restrict, her future access. That is exactly the kind of chilling effect the First Amendment guards against,” Judge James B. Moran wrote for the court.

Sheahan and the officials had argued that Marlan was banned from the prison not for the content of her previous articles, but because Marlan had misled and deceived them about what she planned to write.

The court found the distinction immaterial and said that their justification for banning Marlan amounted to a content-based decision.

Marlan wrote the articles that led to her ban from the jail after female inmates filed a lawsuit claiming that the jail’s strip-search policy violated their civil rights. After the Chicago Reader published the first article, Marlan was denied access to a legal assistance class for the inmates. Although officials videotaped the class and said they would answer questions on the telephone, Marlan could not report from the classroom.

(Chicago Reader v. Michael Sheahan; Media Counsel: Locke Bowman, MacArthur Justice Center, Chicago) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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