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Newspaper sues governor over information freeze-out

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Newspaper sues governor over information freeze-out

  • The (Baltimore) Sun is seeking injunctive relief against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, whose gag on state workers is directly intended to deny information to two Sun journalists.

Dec. 7, 2004 — The Baltimore Sun Co., publisher of The Sun , has asked a federal judge to halt a policy of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich that bans state officials from speaking with Sun journalists David Nitkin and Michael Olesker.

The Sun ‘s lawsuit, filed Friday, names Ehrlich, Press Secretary Shareese Deleaver and Gregory Massoni, deputy director of communications.

“The governor’s action is unprecedented,” said Stephanie Abrutyn, counsel for The Sun. “There is a well-established body of law that says the government cannot retaliate against somebody based on exercise of First Amendment rights.”

“Ehrlich has punished these two reporters because he disapproves of what they have written,” she said. “If the governor can do that to them, he can do it to anybody else.”

The governor has not indicated that he is willing to sit down with the paper anytime soon without unspecified pre-conditions, Abrutyn said. “We again, after the suit was filed, requested that the governor sit down and meet with us. We specifically told his counsel that we wanted to try to resolve this and, if not, we would be forced to seek immediate relief from the court.”

Legal experts said the governor alone could have decided to stop talking to the two journalists, but his executive order to silence other state employees could raise a problem, The Sun reported

Tuesday.

Floyd Abrams, one of the nation’s leading First Amendment lawyers, told The Sun he sees two violations of the law committed by Ehrlich.

“A public official is not allowed to punish anyone for the exercise of his First Amendment right,” Abrams said. “A public official is not allowed to discriminate against one individual or newspaper as opposed to all others.”

But Thomas Dienes, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, said there might be legitimate arguments for Ehrlich’s ban, The Sun reported.

“It’s a different kind of lawsuit,” Dienes said, “There will be a question — to what extent what is being denied is a privilege and to what extent what is being denied is a right.”

The Sun ‘s editor, Timothy Franklin, said he had tried for two weeks to schedule a meeting with Ehrlich to discuss their dispute, The New York Times reported Saturday. The Sun , Maryland’s largest daily newspaper, filed suit after it became clear that Mr. Ehrlich would not agree to meet, Franklin said.

A Nov. 18 memo from Ehrlich’s press office instructed all state public information officers and the governor’s staff to “not return calls or comply with any requests” from Statehouse Bureau Chief David Nitkin or columnist Michael Olesker, who both write about state government.

The complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, contends that the governor imposed the policy “to retaliate against journalists who published articles and columns he did not like.”

According to the lawsuit, several days after The Sun published an Oct. 20 article about a proposed land transaction, Ehrlich pulled Nitkin aside after a press conference and told him that the governor did not like the news reports, which he viewed as a personal attack.

The lawsuit also claims that since the policy was issued, the governor and others in his administration have provided “varying explanations” regarding the reason for the ban in addition to the reasons mentioned in the original memo. The governor publicly stated that his order was “meant to have a chilling effect” on Nitkin and Olesker, the lawsuit says.

The policy was implemented for the “express purpose of punishing and retaliating against The Sun for the exercise of its First Amendment rights” and is not “narrowly tailored to achieve any significant or compelling government interest,” the lawsuit claims.

Nitkin said regular sources who used to drop by to discuss public policy no longer do so, and government contacts have stopped returning his phone calls, The Sun reported Saturday.

(The Baltimore Sun Company v. Ehrlich; Media counsel Stephanie Abrutyn, Tribune Co., New York, N.Y.; Charles Tobin, Holland & Knight, Washington, D.C.) CB

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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