No-cameras prison rule makes ’3 strikes’ assessment impossible, speakers say

Monday, September 20, 1999

Michael Moore, ...
Michael Moore, left, and Peter Sussman.

SAN FRANCISCO — Regulations restricting journalists from photographing or recording interviews with prisoners also keep Californians from learning the impact of ‘three strikes, you’re out’ mandatory sentencing legislation they overwhelmingly adopted in 1994, journalist Peter Sussman says.

Speaking on Sept. 17 at the opening program of the fourth California First Amendment Assembly, Sussman said journalists ‘are aborted in efforts to tell the story because you can’t get a camera in (to prisons) under the latest guidelines. No film. No story.’ He said the 1995 regulations also excluded pencil and paper interviews, but that those restrictions were relaxed earlier this year.

As a result of “three strikes” legislation adopted by the voters after a petition campaign put it on the ballot, persons convicted of three felonies are automatically sentenced to long prison terms. Many of these convictions are for nonviolent crimes. Those imprisoned are ‘often illiterate, mentally retarded or mentally ill,’ Sussman said.

‘Those stories are not told,’ said Sussman, an author and former San Francisco Chronicle editor. ‘Journalism is the choice of anecdotes, which anecdotes you choose to tell.’

The Friday-night session at The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center opened the two-day conference focused on First Amendment freedoms of free press, free speech, freedom of religion, petition and assembly. Sessions on Sept. 18 were held at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.

More than 125 people pre-registered for the conference, which was co-sponsored by the California First Amendment Coalition; the First Amendment Project; Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter; University of California/Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Pacific Coast Center. The theme of the assembly was ‘Will the First Amendment Survive the New Millennium?’ The 15 workshops covered such topics as Privacy and the ‘Net, Privatization of Government, Cyber Libel, Cop Watch, Privacy vs. Right to Know, Brown Act/Open Meetings and Let the Sun Shine In.

The Sept. 17 program featured Michael Moore’s video, ‘The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons,’ a feature on California’s “three strikes” campaign, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast nationally on the POV series by PBS earlier this year. The documentary shows how “three strikes” proponents and politicians misrepresented the initiative’s support and impact to gain its passage.

Newspapers presented more-complete coverage of the initiative’s pros and cons, Moore said, but broadcast reporters were less balanced. In viewing 20 hours of broadcast news footage he said he ‘never once heard a reporter challenge the statements (of proponents) or come up with counter information.’

Both Sussman and Moore agreed that First Amendment rights of petition and free-press were important in a democracy and they did not see a conflict between these rights in the “three strikes” battle. But both warned that restrictions by prison officials on access to prisoners limit the public’s ability to assess the impact of the legislation. Moore said it was increasingly difficult to secure funding and airtime for informative documentaries on tough issues.

Although his documentary aired on public broadcasting’s national POV feed, it was turned down for airing by public television stations KQED in San Francisco and KCET in Los Angeles, Moore said. The stations ‘were terrified of putting something on the air’ that was contrary to legislation passed by voters, he said.