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Station has no right of access to city employees

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Station has no right of access to city employees

  • A Cleveland news station does not have an absolute constitutional right to gather information from city officials, a federal district judge ruled yesterday.

March 5, 2004 — A federal court judge in northern Ohio yesterday held that CBS affiliate WOIO-TV could not show that Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell clearly infringed upon its constitutional rights when she banned all city employees from talking to the station’s reporters.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver denied a temporary restraining order sought by Cleveland’s Channel 19 to gain access to city leaders who are available to other stations. The lawsuit, filed by the station’s owner, Raycom National, maintained that the mayor unconstitutionally infringed upon the freedom of the press.

A restraining order will be entered by a judge only if a party can show it would be likely to prevail on the constitutional claim at trial, and only if it would suffer irreparable harm if the order were not granted.

“The ability to gather information is not an absolute right, and ‘[n]either the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth Amendment mandates a right of access to government information or sources of information within the government’s control,’ ” Oliver wrote, citing a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court opinion on prison access.

The station said on its Web site it was “shut out of city hall” after airing an investigative report about police officers who earned $84,000 for 2,300 hours of overtime accrued while driving various members of Campbell’s family around the city and even out of state.

In the city’s response, filed Wednesday, Campbell contended that her decision was prompted by “irresponsible conduct” on the part of the station for showing pictures of her children and their morning routines, and that she has a “fundamental right to family privacy.”

The station claimed in court records that it has been unable to get information on daily news from the mayor’s staff, city officials and employees — including members of the police and fire departments — since Feb. 25.

According to court records, the mayor’s office admitted to instructing members of her administration not to speak to WOIO, but continued to provide information requested under Ohio’s Freedom of Information Act. The station also did not dispute that it has been permitted to attend press conferences, and continued to receive press releases from the city.

“The mayor may exercise her right not to speak with certain reporters that, in her opinion, she views as untrustworthy or irresponsible,” Oliver wrote. “Furthermore, as a high-level executive with a broad range of discretionary authority, Mayor Campbell may make the determination that city administrators and employees may not comment on behalf of the city to members of media.”

The station will go back to court for a preliminary injunction hearing on April 23, in another attempt to gain access to city officials.

“We are confident that WOIO will win in the end,” attorney Eric Hellerman said in a statement on the station’s Web site.

Raycom National is a subsidiary of Raycom Media, which owns 35 television stations across the United States.

(Raycom National, Inc. v. Campbell, Mayor; Media Counsel: Eric Hellerman, Covington & Burling, New York) MG

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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