Another Governor Lowers the Curtain

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is taking a page from Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich's playbook, cutting off a local paper from routine news releases.

Looks like Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is taking a page from Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich’s playbook.

Ehrlich, you might remember, banned all state public information officers from speaking to the Baltimore Sun’s David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker back in November 2004, because he felt that their reporting was too critical of his administration. In February 2005, a U.S. District Judge in Maryland dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Sun claiming that the ban violated the reporters’ First Amendment rights. The judge wrote that the paper “wrongly asserted a greater right to access to government officials than private citizens have,” and that “The right to publish news is expansive. However, the right does not carry with it the unrestrained right to gather information.”

The Arkansas Times reports on its blog today (hat tip: Romenesko) that the paper “has been stricken from the e-mail lists for routine news releases, public scheduling and other items widely disseminated to members of the public and the media [by the governor’s office].”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, told the paper in a statement that they “don’t consider the Arkansas Times a news organization,” so will not send updates to their employees any longer.

The Times responds that it is, in fact, a news organization, stating that it “report(s) news on this blog and in our weekly print edition on a regular basis. But definitions are largely irrelevant. The Freedom of Information Act is the public’s law, not a press law. Rights abridged under the law for one are rights abridged for all.”

Like the Baltimore Sun before it, the Times is portraying this as a First Amendment issue, arguing, “The governor has decided to punish us for our opinions by withholding a publicly-financed service. We don’t think this practice can stand legal scrutiny and we intend to review our options in that regard.”

Well, considering the lack of success the Sun had in arguing the same case, while essentially being mocked by a federal judge in the process, we wish the Times the best of luck. One thing the paper can do, it seems, is inundate the governor’s office with Freedom of Information Act requests for information. One commentator in the blog’s comments section even helpfully posted instructions for doing just that.

While the governor’s office certainly has the right (or so it seems) to choose who does, and does not, receive press briefings and scheduling information, it’s important to note that the governor serves at the discretion of the people, and his operation is funded by the tax dollars of the state’s citizens.

CJR Daily contacted Stewart, the governor’s spokeswoman, and asked why the Times was stricken from the list, to which she simply reiterated the statement she gave to the paper that they don’t consider the Times a “legitimate news organization,” since it describes itself as a “journal of politics and culture.” Pretty weak stuff, that. She repeated the mantra when asked if there was a specific story or an angle of coverage the governor’s office didn’t agree with, and refused to divulge any other news organizations or citizens who receive email updates from the governor’s press office.

Given the precedent set in Maryland, we’re not sure what recourse (besides filing time-consuming FOI requests) the Times has, other than rallying its readers to pressure the governor’s office to do the right thing, and make public information available to the public: in this case, the reporters of the Arkansas Times.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.