California governor nixes inmate-access bill

Thursday, September 9, 1999

Saying he wants to prevent unfettered access to prisoners, California Gov. Gray Davis has vetoed legislation that would have overturned state-imposed restrictions on news media interviews with state inmates.

Although press experts call the veto a First Amendment defeat, Davis says that under current law reporters have ample opportunities to interview convicts in person during regular business hours, through phone calls and letters and through prisoners' attorneys.

The bill, approved on a 69-7 vote in the Assembly and a 28-7 vote in the Senate, would have dismantled 1996 regulations under which the Department of Corrections stopped arranging inmate interviews for reporters.

Current regulations allow reporters to question inmates they meet at random during prison visits. They also can visit inmates during normal visiting hours, but can be prevented from bringing writing or recording devices with them.

The bill, by Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would have required the Corrections Department to schedule interviews for reporters unless the interview threatened prison security or public safety. It also would allow reporters to bring writing materials, tape recorders and video cameras with them to the interviews.

Gray vetoed the bill on Sept. 7.

“This bill would give journalists preferential treatment by giving them greater access than even members of the prisoner's own family,” Gray said in a statement sent to Assembly members. “Furthermore, according to correctional authorities, its implementation would disrupt the orderly administration of prisons.”

Gray, too, said the bill was inconsistent with current trends “to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners.” He said he didn't want reporters providing inmates with “additional celebrity.”

But press advocates say AB 1440 is only tangentially related to rights of prisoners and is wholly about the public's right to know.

“It's an issue about the right of the press and, therefore, of the public to be informed about people incarcerated in California prisons,” said Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “To characterize this as exclusively a prisoner rights issue or suggest that it is appropriate for the governor to decide what is good for the public to know is appalling.”

Kirtley said Davis' veto is tantamount to an editorial decision that should be left up to the news media.

“That's the disturbing thing,” she said. “Not only is he denying a right of access, but he's allowing the government to act as a super editor.”

Peter Sussman, a journalist noted for his reporting on California prisons, calls the veto “reprehensible.”

“In the name of victims, the news media are being hampered in their ability to investigate conditions in the country's largest, most rapidly growing and most troubled prison system,” Sussman said. “Although we are all concerned about victims, it is the principle of First Amendment law that the ability to speak and to have your speech not restrained in advance takes precedent over possible effects of that speech.”

Before the 1996 regulations, reporters enjoyed open access to prisons. Sussman said the practice had continued without abuse for at least 20 years.

Since the regulations were imposed, press experts say they can cite numerous instances of state prison officials violating open-access rights. Most recently, officials barred an Oakland Tribune reporter from taking any notes during a prison interview.

Tim Graham, president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, says he's disappointed that Davis doesn't support open access to prisons.

“He's buying into the rhetoric that the Department of Corrections has been using all along,” Graham said. “They wanted to create this media straw man that wants unlimited, unfettered access to inmates and also wants to put Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson on prime time TV every night.”