The big chill

February 16, 2005

THESE ARE sad days for those of us who cherish the First Amendment. It was bad enough when, in a moment of unrestrained hubris, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. decided last fall he could pick and choose who is worthy of access to state government information and who is not. On Monday, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. gave this foolish and undemocratic notion a legitimacy it never deserved. By dismissing this newspaper's lawsuit against Mr. Ehrlich, Judge Quarles has unleashed the potential for all manner of petty despotism upon the electorate.

Let us make one thing clear from the outset - The Sun never sought any special privilege. This newspaper has pursued the same rights afforded any citizen. In a sense, The Sun serves as a proxy for its hundreds of thousands of readers, most of whom have a direct stake in state government. Mr. Ehrlich and his staff have the right to decline to be interviewed. They can even restrict their media appearances to friendly electronic venues with their fawning interviewers and powder-puff questions. It's not a particularly responsible or courageous policy, but it's a governor's prerogative.

But neither this nor any other governor has the authority to unilaterally ban state employees from speaking to two individuals. Mr. Ehrlich himself has characterized his Nov. 18 order turning reporter David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker into official personae non gratae as an effort to cast a chill on media coverage of his administration. No matter what Judge Quarles' intent, his decision can only serve to lower the temperature further.

Make no mistake, Mr. Ehrlich's choice to blacklist these two journalists was based on the content of their writings. In particular, the governor didn't like details of his secret land sale in St. Mary's County appearing in print. It's hard to blame him. But facts are facts, and Mr. Ehrlich's sweetheart deal died on the vine. He can't be allowed to achieve retribution by abusing his executive authority. What's to stop him or his successors from similarly cutting off all newspaper reporters from access to state government at the slightest provocation? At the moment, it appears nothing.

This isn't a matter of Democratic or Republican politics, liberal or conservative viewpoints. Simple common sense tells us that government officials should not be allowed to decide who covers them. If they can, the consequences will be disastrous. Reporters and columnists can't be effective if they operate under the constant threat: Write what we like or lose your right to information from the government.

Could The Sun continue responsibly reporting on the machinations of state government under the current circumstances? Probably. But a bigger issue is at stake. It's no less than the fundamental right to a free press - and to equal protection of all citizens under the law. The Sun has no choice but to appeal Judge Quarles' ruling. We owe that much to our profession and to our readers.

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