SOURCE: Society of Professional Journalists

January 17, 2008 10:59 ET

SPJ Effort Leads to Improved Prison Access

INDIANAPOLIS, IN--(Marketwire - January 17, 2008) - SPJ leaders are pleased that on Tuesday, a 7th U.S. Court of Appeals judge reversed a district court's ruling that banned face-to-face interviews with federal death-row inmates.

In August, SPJ joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Hoosier State Press Association in an amicus brief to the Seventh U.S. Court of Appeals in Hammer v. Ashcroft, which challenged a Bureau of Prisons' policy banning face-to-face interviews with federal death-row inmates.

The case initially filed in federal court by David Paul Hammer, who is currently awaiting his death sentence in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., attacked the BOP policy, which Hammer said infringed upon his First Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment for the government and Hammer appealed to the 7th Circuit.

The brief argued that the in-person interview ban was implemented for impermissible reasons -- the BOP enacted the policy after Ed Bradley's interview with Tim McVeigh on "60 Minutes," which sparked outrage from various high-ranking government officials, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. The BOP's stance on the appeal, however, was that the restrictions had nothing to do with criticism it received about the McVeigh interview and that they were put in place for "security reasons."

The 7th Circuit reversed the district court's ruling, holding that "Hammer raised a genuine issue of fact as to whether the defendants' proffered justification for the policy banning face-to-face interviews is pretextual." With that issue decided, the case will be sent back to the district court.

"We're pleased that the Federal Appeals Court recognizes the principles of open government and the First Amendment," said SPJ President Clint Brewer. "Although death-row inmates lose many of their privileges inside prison walls, the press's ability to report on death-row should not be compromised, simply because it makes others in high-ranking government positions feel uncomfortable. Oversight of our nation's prison systems is one of the most important functions of the American media."

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

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