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News media oppose bill restricting execution access

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    NMU         OREGON         Newsgathering         Feb 5, 2001    

News media oppose bill restricting execution access

  • If the legislation passes, it will trump an earlier state Supreme Court opinion that held the corrections department access rules are too limiting.

Proposed legislation in Oregon to restrict access to executions will impede the efforts of the press and result in a public disservice, news organizations testified at a Jan. 19 House Rules Committee hearing.

Introduced at the request of the Oregon Department of Corrections, the bill would authorize the corrections department director to adopt access rules and dictate how much of the execution process the public can witness.

Numerous news organizations, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the bill, arguing that the public should know about every aspect of an execution.

“The public should be able to know how the government carries out its most awesome power: taking the life of a condemned prisoner,”ACLU attorney Andrea Meyer testified.

The dispute between news organizations and the department started when reporters were only allowed to witness the final moments of two executions in 1996 and 1997. News organizations filed a lawsuit, arguing the public has the right to see the entire procedure in order to fully understand the ramifications of the state law permitting capital punishment.

If passed, the bill would overturn a 1999 ruling by the state Supreme Court that held the administrative rules for access were too limiting. The court also struck down a policy that required reporters to sign non-disclosure statements regarding the identities of the execution staff. The court instructed the corrections department to find legal grounds for imposing restrictions on witnesses.

Corrections officials said the goal of the proposed legislation is to protect staff members, not to exclude journalists. Staff who agree to participate in executions may run the risk of identification or retaliation by prisoners if reporters are present, the department argued.

According to Meyer, if the bill passes it could open the door to further constraints on the media.

“Such censorship of the process is counter to our history and will lead us down the path towards more government secrecy,” Meyer testified. “It is critically important for an open and free society to resist using the excuse of administrative convenience to justify such secrecy.”

(H. B. 2096) ML

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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