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Several journalists faced restrictions during presidential election

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Several journalists faced restrictions during presidential election

  • A federal appeals court overturned restrictions on journalists in Ohio, while reporters in Florida and Minnesota were limited from polling places.

Nov. 5, 2004 — Journalists covering the presidential election were barred from polling places in several areas of the country and one was arrested for photographing voters outside a polling place in Florida. In Ohio, a federal appeals court overturned media restrictions while a Texas newspaper in President Bush’s hometown reported harassment after endorsing Kerry.

A Florida sheriff’s deputy chased, tackled, punched and arrested a freelance investigative journalist from Long Island who was photographing voters outside of Palm Beach County’s main elections office Sunday afternoon, according a Palm Beach Post reporter who witnessed the event.

James S. Henry came to Palm Beach County to document election activities for his upcoming book, but instead became the first target of a rule enacted Friday by county elections Supervisor Theresa LePore prohibiting journalists from photographing or interviewing voters outside of polling places.

The Election Protection Coalition, an affiliate of the civil rights group People for the American Way, filed a lawsuit Monday against LePore and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

Circuit Judge David Crow ruled Tuesday that LePore was within her authority to restrict reporters and election monitors from standing within 50 feet of voters, the Palm Beach Daily News reported.

The ruling will be appealed, said Elliot Mincberg, chief counsel of People for the American Way.

“Election protection doesn’t stop with any particular election,” he said in an interview. This restriction “could have enormously negative affects in Palm Beach County for future elections.”

The restriction bars journalists from interviewing voters within 50-feet of a polling place, but that restriction is a “metaphysical concept,” Mincberg said. “If the line stretches for two blocks, the [50-foot] restriction expands to include the last person in line,” he said. “It’s an astonishing claim, to put it mildly.”

The group characterized the enforcement of a state law that prohibits media, nonpartisan groups, party representatives and anyone else deemed a “solicitor” from speaking to voters within 50 feet of a polling place as a First Amendment violation, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Henry, a freelance journalist and economist, ran away from the 600-person line of voters after Sheriff’s Deputy Al Cinque tried to confiscate his camera, The Palm Beach Post reported Monday. The Post reported that Cinque chased Henry for 100 feet and tackled him to the pavement where he punched him in the back before handcuffing him within a few feet of a Post reporter and Marcus Warren of the London Daily Telegraph . When Henry tried to hand the officer his identification cards that were later found on the ground, Cinque punched him again, The Post reported.

But Assistant Palm Beach County Attorney Leon St. John, who represents the elections supervisor, said Cinque told him that Henry “took off running and tripped and fell in the parking lot,” after saying something inappropriate to the deputy and taking a picture of him.

Sheriff’s spokesman Paul Miller said Henry was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. “We’re not going to let anyone interfere with the orderly conduct of the elections process here,” he said. Henry posted $500 bail and was released at 2 a.m. Monday.

Henry, whose articles have appeared in The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , The Washington Post and Fortune Magazine , was working on a book that “that explores how the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the democratic world with respect to the practice of electoral democracy,” according to his Web site.

“I was scared. It’s one thing to flee and another thing to be intimidated,” Henry told the Sun-Sentinel. “I think the public needs to know about these long lines because it’s influencing turnout. I take a strong interest in how democratic institutions here compare to those in the rest of the world, and this was a worst-case scenario.”

A Florida state rule bars journalists from being inside polling rooms, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State said.

In Minnesota, a new law requires journalists to get letters of approval from city election clerks or county auditors before interviewing at polling sites, where they could remain for a maximum of 15 minutes, the Star Tribune reported last week. The law was passed during the final hours of the 2004 legislative session.

In Ohio, a federal appellate court reversed a ban on journalists interviewing and photographing voters or reporting from polling places. A day earlier, a federal judge upheld the ban levied by Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

The U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Cir.) granted “reasonable access to any polling place for the purpose of newsgathering and reporting so long as the plaintiffs do not interfere with poll workers and voters as they exercise their right to vote,” Broadcasting & Cable reported.

In its 2-1 ruling in Beacon Journal Publishing v. Blackwell, the court said that the defendants had not met the strict scrutiny under which restrictions on speech are placed by enacting “a blanket prohibition to members of the press — whose objective far from interfering with the right to vote is rather to report the news of the day.”

ABC, CNN, CBS, Fox News, NBC and the Associated Press filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to block Blackwell’s directive.

The Lone Star Iconoclast , a small paper in Crawford, Texas, meanwhile, has continued “catching flack” for its endorsement of John Kerry for president in a place billed as President Bush’s hometown, its editor said in an interview.

Local school coaches have stopped sending statistics sheets on school sports since the endorsement, said W. Leon Smith, editor in chief and publisher of the newspaper.

“It’s much more difficult getting information,” he said. “A lot of our network has dried up.”

When part-time college student reporters were sent to a local festival to take photographs after the endorsement, they were harassed and intimidated, Smith said. Members of the festival’s committee called to apologize the following day, he said.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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