Ehrlich resolute in ban on Sun journalists

Governor is determined day after newspaper files lawsuit over directive

December 05, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. remained determined yesterday in his order banning state officials from speaking to two Sun journalists, one day after the newspaper filed a federal lawsuit against him and top members of his administration.

Speaking to reporters at a ceremony honoring members of the state's Air National Guard, Ehrlich said he had to be "careful" when talking about the suit but went on to reiterate accusations of "serial inaccuracies" in the newspaper.

"The Sun wants to place a chilling effect on our ability to communicate with the general public," said Ehrlich, who remarked last month that he intended the directive to have a "chilling effect" on the newspaper. "It's unfortunate. It's another negative chapter in the history of The Baltimore Sun."

On Friday, the Baltimore Sun Co. asked a federal judge to lift the administration's ban on State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker. The ban was issued Nov. 18 by Ehrlich press secretary Shareese N. DeLeaver in an e-mail directive.

In response to the governor's remarks yesterday, Sun Editor Timothy A. Franklin said: "It's easy for him to go around making broad-brushed attacks against the newspaper, but he still has not been willing to sit down and give us specifics about what those inaccuracies are."

"We've been trying very hard to have a constructive dialogue with the governor's office, but we have not been able to have one," Franklin added. "That's why we felt we had no option but to go to court."

The lawsuit challenges Ehrlich's ban on the grounds that it discourages "speech by any citizen of Maryland who disagrees with the Governor." Calling the lawsuit unprecedented, media experts said it raises the issue of whether the First Amendment protects journalists from being the targets of retaliation by government officials.

In an interview yesterday morning on WBAL radio, David B. Hamilton - an attorney for Ehrlich who was general counsel for the governor's transition team - argued that the directive does not violate the First Amendment because it applies to only two reporters.

"The Constitution doesn't give these reporters the right to distort and otherwise breach the standards of trustworthiness," said Hamilton, a litigator with the Baltimore-based firm Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver and a member of the state employee pension system's board of trustees. "It's not an intent to ban The Sun or ban all reporters from The Sun from having access to the administration."

Franklin disagreed, calling the governor's ban a "blatantly unconstitutional gag order."

"Governor Ehrlich is not the first politician in American history to shoot the messenger for publishing stories that he or she didn't like," Franklin said. "Governor Ehrlich is the first politician in Maryland to issue a gag order for all of state government as a way to punish two journalists who apparently wrote things he disapproved of."

If the ban is not lifted, Franklin said, it could set a frightening precedent allowing politicians - Democratic or Republican - to deny access to state government to any individual who writes or says something that they don't like.

Before leaving yesterday's award ceremony, Ehrlich said he felt he had achieved a small victory in his communications with The Sun when the newspaper's public editor, Paul Moore, wrote a column last Sunday discussing the conflict and explaining an inaccurate map that appeared in the paper.

Ehrlich also referred to victory in a recent column by Olesker, whom the governor has criticized for a column that described the facial expression of an administration official during a hearing that Olesker did not attend. In the recent follow-up column, Olesker conceded that he was not at the hearing but wrote that he intended the reference metaphorically, not literally.

Still, Ehrlich said, Olesker and Moore had only "halfway apologized," and he gave no indication yesterday of any desire to relent on his directive. "They need to improve their game," the governor said of the newspaper.

In response, Franklin said, "The governor can call them whatever he wants, but the fact is, they were good-faith efforts to try to square with readers what we wrote.

"That's what we do - if we make an error or publish something out of context, we correct it - and we correct it quickly."

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