Public meetings

Access to public meetings is controlled by state open meetings laws. Each state has its own detailed laws on what constitutes a meeting, who may attend, and when a public body may properly close a meeting. But the law is not so clear on when particular reporters or citizens can be removed from meetings. If public officials can claim a legitimate reason for excluding particular people and the exclusion is not done for reasons related to First Amendment expression -- such as retribution for critical or negative coverage of an official -- courts will usually defer to the decision of the officials. But content-related bans can prompt civil rights suits; state officials are not allowed to use their authority to interfere with constitutionally protected rights.

Most states allow access to "the public," and do not bother to define that term more. However, some states, such as Delaware, restrict access only to citizens of the states, or allow cities and town to limit access to local residents.

Many state laws specify exacting procedures governing the closure of a public meeting, or the use of secret executive sessions to keep the public and press out. A number of states require that closed sessions must be announced at a public meeting, and that reasons for the closure must be spelled out.

State laws also spell out what types of meetings can be closed. Discussions with attorneys regarding litigation will almost always be closed, as will discussions of real estate purchases. But the laws will usually specify the exact conditions under which these types of meetings are closed, and whether or when the information must eventually be released.

The open meetings act of each state will also describe how the public or members of the news media can challenge closures of meetings. Some states will allow for an administrative review, such as Connecticut and Hawaii, which have public bodies that monitor compliance with the openness laws. Other states have similar bodies that issue nonbinding advisory opinions. But in most states, the only remedy involves seeking an injunction in court.

A more troubling area of access issues involves not the public meetings and press conferences themselves, but the ability of reporters to interview and receive more information from public servants. In February 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by two Baltimore Sun reporters after Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich had ordered state officials not to talk to the journalists. The decision was particularly surprising because Ehrlich made it clear that the action was taken specifically because of what the reporters had written about him.

The governor's press office in November 2004 ordered state public information officers and executive branch officials "not to return calls or comply with any requests" from the two journalists, although they were allowed to attend press conferences and receive press releases.

A trial judge initially dismissed the case, viewing it as a demand for government information. He ruled that journalists do not have a greater First Amendment right than private citizens to access government information.

The appellate court affirmed that decision. Allowing the reporters' retaliation claim to stand would turn the relationship between journalists and government officials on its head, the court said. "Having access to relatively less information than other reporters on account of one's reporting is so commonplace that to allow The Sun to proceed on its retaliation claim addressing that condition would 'plant the seed of a constitutional case' in 'virtually every' interchange between public official and press," according to the court. (The Baltimore Sun Company v. Ehrlich)