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Reporters not guaranteed equal access to information

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Reporters not guaranteed equal access to information 02/09/98 VIRGINIA--A federal appeals court panel in Richmond (4th Cir.) unanimously held in…

Reporters not guaranteed equal access to information

02/09/98

VIRGINIA–A federal appeals court panel in Richmond (4th Cir.) unanimously held in mid-January that reporters do not have a firmly established First Amendment right of equal or nondiscriminatory access to government information.

The court denied journalist Terrie Snyder’s claim against the Baltimore City Police Department for violating her First Amendment rights by denying her access to information and interviews provided to other journalists.

According to Snyder, police public affairs director Samuel Ringgold retaliated against her because she wrote stories that were critical of the department. Ringgold asserted that he restricted Snyder’s access to briefings and other materials because she violated a promise of confidentiality by attributing an off-the-record comment to him in a newspaper article, misrepresented the department’s actions to her employer and abused the public information system by paging officers unnecessarily on the weekends.

The appeals court found that Ringgold was entitled to “qualified immunity” from suit because the right asserted by the reporter had not been clearly established by U.S. Supreme Court or Fourth Circuit case law.

Snyder filed a civil rights action in federal District Court in Baltimore in 1996. In January 1997, Senior District Judge Frank Kaufman had ruled in Snyder’s favor, holding that, absent a compelling governmental interest, a government official who makes information available to the news media may not discriminate against individual reporters.

Kaufman found that Ringgold unconstitutionally retaliated against Snyder because he “took issue with the substance and style” of her reporting.

Snyder claimed that she began to experience difficulties in obtaining information from Ringgold in 1992, after she produced a story for WBAL-TV alleging that the department might have attempted to cover up a prominent politician’s connection to a young murder victim. According to Snyder, Ringgold later told Snyder that he believed she had “set him up” for the story.

In 1993, Snyder wrote an article in the Baltimore City Paper criticizing the department’s new policy requiring that journalists obtain homicide information from a Public Information officer rather than directly from detectives. In that article, Snyder attributed a comment to Ringgold that he claimed was an off-the-record statement made to another reporter at WBAL-TV.

In May 1994, Ringgold wrote a letter to the news director for WBAL-TV, stating that he would “never go off-the record with” WBAL reporters and that Snyder had “developed friendships in the department that prevent her from being an objective journalist.”

Shortly thereafter, Ringgold refused to allow Snyder to accompany a WBFF-TV television crew filming interviews with homicide division personnel. He contacted the editor of the City Paper and informed her that he would no longer talk to Snyder about any story. Ringgold also required Snyder to submit requests for information in writing, a practice that other journalists were not required to follow. (Snyder v. Ringgold; Media Counsel: Jeffrey William Bredeck, Baltimore)