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Judge denies media access to mine tragedy proceedings

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Oct. 9, 2007  ·   A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Mine Safety and Health Administration may continue to…

Oct. 9, 2007  ·   A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Mine Safety and Health Administration may continue to deny the media access to special proceedings being held to investigate the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah.

An assortment of media companies — including the Associated Press, CNN and The Salt Lake Tribune — had argued that members of the press have a First Amendment right to attend proceedings being conducted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The plaintiff companies cited a 1985 case that found the press had such a right to attend proceedings being held to investigate a similar mine disaster in Utah in 1984.

Represented by the U.S. Department of Labor, MSHA contended that opening up the proceedings would disrupt and potentially compromise its investigation into the tragedy, which led to the deaths of six miners and three rescuers in August.

In finding for the government, Judge Dee Benson distinguished the 1985 case, Society of Professional Journalists v. Secretary of Labor, by noting that the older case had involved formal hearings during which MSHA had permitted other outside, non-governmental groups to attend, but not the media. By uniformly denying access to all outside parties except for the interviewees during the current proceedings, MSHA steered clear of a First Amendment violation, Benson ruled.

Furthermore, Benson noted that the Mine Safety and Health Act gave MSHA great discretion in determining which proceedings should be open to the public.

“While it may be true that requiring all government investigations to be open would result in greater accountability and more accurate information, if such a requirement is to be imposed, it must come from a statute that is debated and passed by Congress and signed into law by the president,” Benson wrote.

MSHA started the proceedings behind closed doors in mid-September to investigate the mine accident. In requesting a temporary retraining order, the media companies also requested transcripts of all interviews conducted since the start of the proceedings.

Michael P. O’Brien, an attorney for the media companies, said his clients were still considering whether to appeal the district court ruling. He said the most recent mine tragedy in Utah showed the Mine Safety and Health Act needs to be amended.

“At the very least, Congress should look at this issue very carefully and see the value of public interest in these types of situations and change the statute,” O’Brien said.

Media companies are not the only group attempting to gain access to the MSHA proceedings. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) has also pushed MSHA to allow his state’s newly formed mine safety commission to attend.

(Kearns Tribune, LLC v. Chao; Media Counsel: Michael P. O’Brien, Jones Waldo, Salt Lake City)Scott Albright

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