Utahn debates roles of government spokesmen at National Press Club event

4 09 2013

Linda Petersen, president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, recently participated in a debate over censorship by government public information officers.

The event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. this past month addressed the issue of government spokespeople limiting reporters’ access to officials at agencies, monitoring interviews and even banning reporters from speaking to certain agencies.

While much of the discussion focused on spokespeople at federal agencies, Petersen pointed out that the mindset that public-information officers need to “control” reporters extends far beyond the D.C. Beltway. Petersen, who is the managing editor of the Valley Journals, sees it in the Salt Lake Valley communities her papers cover.

Petersen said her papers have been forced to go through spokespeople to get information on road projects, and even had the city’s spokesman sit in on an interview with the engineer. In another case, Petersen said she almost published the wrong time for an Easter Egg hunt because a city recreation official said he was barred from speaking to reporters.

“Nobody ever voted for a PAO [Public Affairs Officer],” Petersen said. “No PAO, as yet, has a formal vote on city, state or federal business – so why does government think the public should be fine hearing from them all the time, instead of the people they elected?”

 

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Utah media fighting attempt to close hearing in soccer referee Ricardo Portillo’s death

15 05 2013

The Associated Press reports that lawyers for the teen accused of killing a soccer referee want the case closed.

The lawyers requested the order after a Salt Lake City television station asked for permission to film in the juvenile courtroom during the teen’s initial appearance. The teen is charged with homicide by assault after he punched referee Ricardo Portillo in the head after Portillo issued him a yellow-card warning at an April soccer game.

Portillo died a week later as a result of the injury.

A new court rule allows TV cameras in courtrooms for hearings. The rule does allow the judge to deny TV coverage in sensitive cases or where protected testimony — from children or sexual-assault victims — is given.

But the lawyers for the teen, who is not being named by most Utah news outlets because he’s only charged as a juvenile at this time, are going further than that. They want the judge to bar any reporting on the hearing.

The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, KSL, KUTV, KTVX and FOX 13 have joined together to challenge the order.

Austin Ritter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee and Loveless, argues that closing the meeting goes beyond the authority of the judge.

And court decisions indicate that such a closure may be unconstitutional. In the 1986 Press Enterprise vs Superior Court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a First Amendment right for journalists and the public to attend court hearings.

The court found that a courtroom could only be closed under extraordinary circumstances, and there was no other way to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that the fair-trial right can be preserved when jurors are selected, screening out those who have become biased because of media coverage.

The Supreme Court has also frowned on efforts to stop reporters from publishing stories on newsworthy subjects.

“Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity,” the Supreme Court ruled in its 1971 New York Times vs. United States decision.

A hearing on the request has been scheduled for June 14.





Idaho’s efforts to stifle Ogden’s Five Wives Vodka earns it a Jefferson Muzzle

16 04 2013

While Utah’s liquor laws sometimes leave people shaking their heads, it was neighboring Idaho that won recognition for attempting to ban a vodka made in Ogden.

This past week, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression awarded the Idaho State Liquor Commission one of nine 2013 Jefferson Muzzle awards for barring the sale of Five Wives Vodka in the state.

The Jefferson Muzzles are given around April 13, Jefferson’s birthday, to recognize the foundation’s namesake’s dedication to free expression by spotlighting those who try to trample that right.

In the Five Wives’ case, Ogden’s Own Distillery attempted to sell its vodka to Idaho bars and liquor stores. The Idaho liquor agency refused to permit its sale in the state, claiming that the product’s “concept” was “offensive to a prominent segment of our population.”

Idaho’s population is 27 percent LDS, and the vodka’s name could be seen as a reference to polygamy. The label also showed a photo of a group of five women in bonnets, lifting their skirts to show their petticoats, with kittens stuffed in pockets over their crotches.

When Ogden’s Own threatened a lawsuit, and the controversy went national, the liquor board backed down — to a point. The vodka is only available through special order, meaning it cannot be stocked on shelves or prominently advertised.

“Because the value of speech is a completely subjective determination that can vary from person to person, the First Amendment does not permit government officials to impose their individual preferences on the public,” the Jefferson Muzzle citation reads. “As United States Supreme Court Justice Harlan famously wrote, ‘one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.’”

Other Jefferson Muzzle winners included the Oklahoma school that ordered a 5-year-old boy to turn his University of Michigan T-shirt inside out, a Pennsylvania school board for banning the book The Dirty Cowboy and officials who attempted to bar Chick-Fil-A stores from coming to their areas because of the owner’s stance against same-sex marriage.