NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MISSISSIPPI · Freedom of Information · May 25, 2007
Investigation into Scalia tapes erasures should be public
May 25, 2007 · After a two-year delay, a federal law enforcement agency has been ordered to release documents of its investigation of the seizure of two journalists’ tape recordings of a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a lawyer for the newspaper challenging the withholding said Thursday.
Leonard D. Van Slyke Jr., attorney for the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, said the Department of Justice sided with the newspaper in its Freedom of Information Act appeal and ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to conduct a new search for and turn over documents related to the paper’s request.
In 2004, Scalia spoke to a local high school and a U.S. marshal forced reporters from the Hattiesburg American and The Associated Press to erase their taped recordings of that speech. Scalia, who had a policy forbidding taping of his speeches, later apologized for the incident but denied he had instructed the recordings be destroyed.
Later that year, the Hattiesburg American filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Marshals Service requesting the final report of the agency’s investigation into the incident, all transcripts of interviews conducted in the course of the investigation, and copies of guidelines provided to agents on how to handle the news media.
Van Slyke said the agency turned over copies of new media guidelines enacted subsequent to the FOIA request, but denied access to everything else, citing privacy concerns. In February 2005, the newspaper appealed that determination to the Department of Justice.
In a letter this week, the Department of Justice said any privacy concerns that might exist did not justify withholding nearly all of the documents requested in their entirety and that the U.S. Marshals Service must at the very least turn over those portions of the documents that are not exempt.
The agency has also been ordered to turn over all guidelines for dealing with the media it had in place at the time of the Scalia speech.
“Of course it remains to be seen what they will send us, but hopefully they will send unredacted documents,” Van Slyke said.
The newspaper also hopes for a quicker response than the two years it took the government to get around to fulfilling this latest obligation. FOIA provides agencies up to 30 business days to consider a requester’s appeal.
“One of my great concerns about this is the length of time,” said Van Slyke, who said he will indicate in his response to the government that he expects this latest search to be conducted quickly. “They are totally ignoring the time mandates of the Freedom of Information Act.”
The Hattiesburg American and the AP had also sued the Marshals Service, saying the seizure of the tapes violated the reporters’ civil rights. That case was settled in 2004.
(Media Counsel: Leonard D. Van Slyke Jr., Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis, P.A., Jackson, Miss.) — NW