The U.S. Department of Justice reaffirmed in a letter this week that public meetings are open to the press, after accusations that one of its attorneys told a Louisiana reporter that he could not quote or record her during a public meeting, citing "special rules."
The department was responding to a letter from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press requesting copies of “any documents within your agency that state and/or explain this policy.”
Attorney Rachel Hranitzky allegedly announced at the June 12 public meeting in New Iberia, La., that the department had "special rules" that allowed her to prohibit a Daily Iberian reporter from reporting her statements. She also allegedly tried to have the reporter removed when he questioned her. Hranitzky then allegedly threatened the reporter that the department would call the newspaper's editor and publisher and warned that he would not "want to get on the Department of Justice's bad side."
“We are gravely concerned over any internal practice or policy of preventing journalists from recording or quoting statements made by [justice department] officials in public meetings,” according to the Reporters Committee’s letter. “Restricting the public’s right to report on federal officials’ actions at public meetings clearly conflicts with the mandates of the First Amendment and state open government laws.”
In its response, the Justice Department recognized that the meetings were public and open to the press and pointed out that the events at the meeting were ultimately reported on. However, the response sidesteps the issue of department attorneys issuing intimidating threats to reporters about what they can report during the course of a public meeting. It further does not acknowledge what "special rules" Hranitzky was referring to in June.
“All of these meetings have been open to the press, as all future public meetings will be,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in the letter dated July 10. “The Daily Iberian both attended and reported on the department’s June 12th compliance meeting; as is evidenced by several stories regarding the meeting that were published by the newspaper in subsequent days, the reporter was not prevented from reporting on the statements made in the meeting, including quotes attributed to a department attorney.”
The public meeting was held to address concerns with the city fire department’s hiring and promotion process, according to attendees at the meeting.
Louisiana open meetings law states that “all or any part of the proceedings in a public meeting may be video or tape recorded, filmed, or broadcast live.” The state law also provides that transcripts of any such meetings are public.