Photographers Feel the Law's Short Sharp Shock

The tension between some journalists and some peace officers continues, as the ACLU of Southern California sues the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for interfering with freelance photographers on suspicion of casing public facilities for terroristic purposes, and the Newspaper Guild organizes a protest of the alleged rough treatment given photographers by officers in the Occupy Oakland mêlée (pictured). The Northern California ACLU, meanwhile, has quickly filed an ambitious request for records of the Oakland Police Department concerning its unusually forceful confrontation with the Occupiers.

Photos: Jean-Philippe Dobrin

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Hospital Directors Complain to Boss of Attorney Critic

Oceanside’s Tri-City Healthcare District board majority has been contending for some kind of gothic governance award for years, among other things for the way it treats two of its members who too frequently ask questions and express dissent. The crowning act of discipline has been to banish the pair from all closed sessions—not because they have leaked information from them in the past but because closed session is where Tri-City power is controlled and executed, and the majority apparently wants no witnesses as to just how. The exile is one of those flamboyantly despotic maneuvers that local government officials sometimes get up to because they think the victims cannot afford take them to court and because their attorneys guarantee them they’re acting lawfully in any case. The latest flail is not against the two directors themselves but against a lawyer who had the audacity to complain that they—the directors he had voted for—had been unlawfully stripped of key powers of office.  First the story, then a veteran local columnist’s comment.

NPR: You Have the Obligation to Remain Silent

National Public Radio, under new leadership after the departure of a top executive who shared the public heat for the firing of Juan Williams for a moment of  candor a year ago, is now under the beginnings of a new siege for telling an opera program producer it would no longer carry her show after she spoke up as a demonstrator at a D.C. area Occupy gathering. One critic in particular calls the move hypocrisy, given NPR’s apparent tolerance in the past for political opinions voiced by several of its top news stars. A question still awaiting an answer: How clearly are those in any contractual relationship with NPR told that their speech, petition and assembly rights must be put on hold?

Ventura Court Clerk Sued for Records Access Delays

If justice delayed is justice denied, is access delayed to court records access denied—contrary to the First Amendment? That’s the position taken by Courthouse News Service in its federal court lawsuit against the clerk of the Ventura County Superior Court, which it says is often days, even weeks late in allowing the public to see newly filed cases. Reporting for Courthouse News Service, Bill Girdner explains that the defendant blames the lag on processes made necessary by the new statewide court information system. Continue reading

Bank Fires Man for Questioning City Manager's Pay

The city manager of a Riverside County hamlet of 5,000 or so souls, paid more than a quarter million dollars a year along with some surprising and costly perks, got a bank employee fired for questioning his compensation at a city council meeting and submitting public records requests to document his suspicions, reports Bonnie Barron for Courthouse News Service.  But it’s the bank and the officer who did the firing who are being sued—for wrongful termination in retaliation for the vice president’s exercise of his constitutional rights to speak freely and seek public information. Continue reading

If Medical Marijuana Ads Fall, Will Sex Ads Be Next?

Just as the respectable Sacramento Bee, continuing to lapse into tighter resource pinches from the loss of advertising, began to run a weekly insert with ads for medical marijuana dispensaries, it appeared that the U.S. Justice Department was going to pressure newspapers to drop such ads. Since marijuana distribution remains illegal under federal law, there is little doubt that the government can take such steps without offending the First Amendment, according to a 38-year-old decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Question: If the feds succeed in drying up medical marijuana advertising, will California district attorneys in more conservative counties move against alternative newspapers, a number of which do a fair amount of advertising for sexual recreation?

A License Sought to Lie for Justice and Security

Should a public agency be authorized to lie to a person seeking access to government records? That’s the plan being advanced by the U.S. Justice Department for situations where even confirming that certain documents existed—while denying access to them—might disclose that certain sensitive law enforcement or intelligence operations were under way.  Winston Churchill once remarked that “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But we are engaged in apparently unending (what would tell us we’d won?) wars on terrorism, drug rackets and other criminal conspiracies. The already most cryptocratic sectors of our national government now want a license to lie as well as torture and assassinate. Do you trust the government that brought you the Gulf of Tonkin attacks and the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to lie responsibly?

But wait a bit. Does the fact that express authority to lie about the existence of certain specified records is being sought mean that the DOJ considers that unless excused, lying about the existence of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act is not lawful? I’d be willing to support the rule to excuse lying about the existence of records totally exempt from disclosure anyway in these limited instances if Congress were willing expressly to criminalize lying to frustrate access to public information otherwise. That kind of lying is not confined to federal records and agencies.  Most experienced journalists know of situations where a government whistleblower slipped a reporter documents. but when a formal request for them was made (to protect the informant), the agency denied their existence.