While the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1974 that journalists had no First Amendment right to schedule personal media interviews with prison inmates, for the next two decades the actual policy of the California Department of Corrections was to honor media requests for interviews with willing prisoners. But in 1996, after reports about inhumane conditions at Pelican Bay made the Wilson Administration uncomfortable, the department used “emergency” regulations to cut off the customary access, and over the years since then six bills passed by the legislature to restore it have been vetoed by Governors Davis and Schwarzenegger.
The latest effort, AB 1270 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), has passed the Assembly and on Tuesday cleared the Senate’s policy hurdle, the Public Safety Committee, on a 4-2 vote. It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee for cost impact vetting, and if passed there it would go to its last vote on the Senate floor.
A report by a clearly partial organization (the press did not cover the hearing) nonethless conveys how the support base for media access to prisons has grown far beyond mere media urging. The main questions remaining: Will Governor Brown provide the seventh disingenuous veto message in the series? And if he signes the bill, how many reporters do the shrinking newspapers have left to take advantage of the restored right to interview?