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Federal judge rules state police media policy is unconstitutional

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    News Media Update         CONNECTICUT    

    News Media Update         CONNECTICUT         Newsgathering    

Federal judge rules state police media policy is unconstitutional

  • The state police agency’s administrative and operations manual violates troopers’ constitutional right to free speech

Oct. 7, 2004 — Preventing state police employees from speaking on matters of public concern is unconstitutional, a Connecticut federal judge ruled Friday.

The state police media policy, including the agency’s requirement that requests for media interviews be referred to or approved by a public information officer, “operates as a prior restraint on protected speech,” U.S. District Judge Dominic J. Squatrito ruled in a 76-page decision, the Associated Press reported.

Trooper Mark Lauretano filed a lawsuit against the state, Public Safety Commissioner Arthur Spada and others after his superior officers ordered him not to talk to the press while state administrators were giving interviews critical of Lauretano to the news media.

Lauretano had been accused of mishandling a sexual-assault case in 1997 at Hotchkiss School in Salisbury, which resulted in a state police internal investigation and disciplinary action against him. He was suspended for two months without pay, removed as Salisbury resident trooper and transferred, AP reported.

Karen Lee Torre, Lauretano’s attorney, said she is extremely pleased with the decision.

“The press should be equally pleased about the decision,” she said in an interview. “A lot of times reporters bemoan the fact that they can’t extract information out of these agencies.”

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s office is reviewing the decision to determine if an appeal is “appropriate,” he said in a press release. “My office will consult with the new commissioner of public safety to establish whether and how the ruling may require changes to his department’s media policy and other possible steps,” the release said.

An official at the state police headquarters’ public information office said Wednesday that no one could discuss the decision until Monday.

A notice of intent to appeal has been posted on a state government website, but the Second Circuit has been “appropriately hostile” to appeals on similar decisions, Torre said.

“I think an appeal would be a complete waste of time,” she said. “The 2nd Circuit has a very good record on First Amendment issues and is unlikely to view favorably on an appeal by the state.”

The media policy had been around for approximately 20 years before Lauretano filed his lawsuit.

“It takes a great deal of courage for one person [to come forward]–the fear of reprisal is great,” she said. “Any lawyer who represents whistle-blowers know the people who bring these cases have strong moral cores, a strong sense of ethical duty.”

(Lauretano v. Spada; Counsel: Karen Lee Torre, New Haven, Conn.) CB

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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