Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Locking Up Media Access in California

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Locking Up Media Access in California

Article excerpt

In a flurry of legal legerdemain with frightening implications, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer is using a prisoner's lawsuit against state officials to harass a respected journalist with no real connection to the case. Ever since Peter Y. Sussman was named as a possible witness in the lawsuit, the attorney general has flooded the Berkley-based freelance journalist with demands for notes, e-mail messages, Internet postings, phone records, financial statements and, astoundingly, anything related to his "opposition, either as an individual or as an officer or former officer" of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), to California's restrictive policies on the news media's access to prisoners.

With that last demand, the attorney general is showing his real intent: To intimidate a journalist who has been an effective voice in the drive to overturn California's ban on one-on-one media interviews with prisoners and to discourage other reporters from pressing the issue with authorities. As the former president of SPJ's Northern California chapter, Sussman led a lobbying effort that in 1997 very nearly succeeded in overturning the ban. Several years ago, the State Department of Corrections unilaterally imposed the ban after more than 30 years of permitting journalists to conduct face-to-face interviews and exchange confidential correspondence with inmates. SPJ crafted a bill to restore media access that was passed by large, bipartisan margins but was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Sussman sums up the harassment bluntly: "You testify before the legislature, baby, and we're going to serve you with a subpoena. …

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