Provided by, and quoted with the permission of, Peter Y. Sussman. -P.J.



December 29, 1995

CONTACT:

Peter Y. Sussman, President
Northern California Society of Professional Journalists (510) 845-1311
(
peter@psussman.com)

PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS DECRY PRISON CENSORSHIP


The Northern California chapter of the nation's largest and oldest association of journalists today (12/29/95) denounced the decision by state officials to cut off all media interviews with state prisoners for an unspecified period of time.

"Our entire system of government is based on the public's right to know about the operation of public institutions," said Peter Y. Sussman, Northern California president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Prisons are public institutions - in California right now they are both newsworthy and controversial institutions - and no law or court ruling gives prison officials the right to hog-tie news media reporting for capricious reasons. Judging from the public comments of state prison officials, the reasons for the current ban on interviews are capricious in the extreme, based on political motivations not grounded in security or other legitimate penological concerns."

State officials, in revealing the ban on prisoner interviews by news organizations, claimed that the ban is temporary, pending review of current policies to separate "mainstream" or "legitimate" news organizations from "entertainment news, like radio or TV talk shows."

SPJ's Sussman responded that there was no authority for prison officials to decide which journalists were worthy of reporting on prison issues. "Freedom of the Press was enshrined in our Constitution specifically to guarantee the independence of the news media to report on issues of public concern," said Sussman. "That independence does not exist when the very officials whose actions are being scrutinized are allowed to direct the news coverage. Especially at a time when prison issues are near the top of the public agenda - and when the state Department of Corrections has lost high-profile court suits challenging treatment of high-security and mentally ill inmates - it is imperative that the media have unfettered access to the prisoners whose rights have been upheld in court. Filtering of those reports through the prison bureaucracy is inimical both to the press' constitutional right to report on government affairs and the public's right to know how its government is conducting its business.

"It is true," Sussman continued, "that some Supreme Court rulings give prisons a narrow right to limit media access to prisoners, but that right is based on the special security concerns of prisons and not on the political or personal whims of state officials. And even where security is a legitimate issue, the Supreme Court has highlighted the special and protected role of the media in covering prison issues."

The assistant secretary of California's Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, J.P. Tremblay, has been quoted in media reports as defending the interview ban. Tremblay said, according to the reports, "Why should some guy benefit from committing a crime? We did this because we didn't want to have inmates becoming celebrities and heroes." He also is quoted as saying, "Our concern is that we do not want to have criminals glamorized or made celebrities by these types of shows. It goes counter to the purpose of incarceration, which is punishment for crime."

Sussman, a longtime San Francisco journalist who has co-authored a book dealing in part with media-prisoner First Amendment issues, maintained that Tremblay's stated concerns were political in nature and therefore illegitimate. "He appears to be concerned about prisoners' glamor, whatever that means, and for this reason - and not for the security reasons that might arguably justify such actions - he is willing to discard the public's and the media's cherished First Amendment guarantees. Well, the members of the Society of Professional Journalists - and I believe the public - are not willing to so easily relinquish their rights of citizenship."


Send comments or questions to jackson@sonoma.edu and/or to peter@psussman.com (Peter Sussman)

 

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