News media asks Supreme Court to review rules prohibiting death row interviews

Twenty-three news organizations have asked the Supreme Court to review federal rules prohibiting in-person interviews that block inmates from informing the press of treatment and conditions. -DB

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Press Release
November 25, 2009

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review federal rules that prohibit in-person interviews with death row inmates and ban the inmates from telling the press about the treatment, conditions, or actions of any other inmates.

The rules at issue in the case, Hammer v. Ashcroft, were created after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh appeared on the television news program 60 Minutes. John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, declared that the purpose of the ban was to suppress the viewpoints of McVeigh and other death row inmates. “As an American who cares about our culture, I want to restrict a mass murderer’s access to the public podium,” Ashcroft said at the time.

“Timothy McVeigh was a despicable human being,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “But it is not appropriate to ban the public from receiving information about him just because the attorney general was offended. That is an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech.”

Twenty-four media groups asked the Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that it involves critical Constitutional questions: “whether the federal government may prohibit death row inmates from talking to the press about the abuse, mistreatment, and actions of other inmates; whether it may prohibit all in-person interviews with death row inmates; and whether these draconian restrictions may be valid even where the officials responsible for the rules admitted they were motivated by a desire to keep disfavored viewpoints from reaching the public.”

“Prohibitions on inmate interviews imperil vital communication,” the brief continued. “Through interviews with inmates, journalists regularly expose prison rape and other abuse, document poor conditions and unhealthy environments in the nation’s prisons and jails, allow the public to monitor how its tax dollars are spent within prisons, and spur reforms across the country.”

The Reporters Committee filed the brief on behalf of itself and 23 of the nation’s leading news organizations: Advance Publications, Inc., The American Society of News Editors, The Association of American Publishers, Inc., The Citizen Media Law Project, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., Cox Media Group, Inc., The E.W. Scripps Company, The First Amendment Coalition, The Foundation for National Progress, Gannett Co., Inc., The Hoosier State Press Association, The Hoosier State Press Association Foundation, The Human Rights Defense Center, MediaNews Group, National Press Photographers Association, The New York Times Company, Newspaper Association of America, The Newspaper Guild – CWA, The Radio Television Digital News Association, The Society of Professional Journalists, Stephens Media LLC, Tribune Company, and The Washington Post.

Copyright 2009 Reporters Committee or Freedom of the Press