Texas official urges board to drop proposed death-row rules for media

Monday, July 12, 1999

Determined to discourage media reports glorifying inmates on Texas' death
row, the state's Department of Criminal Justice recently began considering new
rules governing the access to such prisoners.

“We don't want to spend time with Geraldo,” said Carl Reynolds, the
department's general counsel and adviser to the state Board of Criminal Justice.
“We would rather spend time with Ted Koppel. But it got slippery when we tried
to write rules to that effect.”

Concerned that efforts to grant access to some news organizations and not to
others may infringe upon First Amendment rights to a free press, Reynolds said that he
would ask the board to reject the proposed rules, which were published in the
Texas Registry last month.

Press advocates praised Reynolds' decision, saying efforts to distinguish
types of news organizations are problematic.

“This whole notion of trying to define what constitutes 'news media' and to
draw a line between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate,' that smacks of licensing,”
said Ian Marquand, co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom
of Information committee. “Boy, that's a big problem.”

According to the proposed rules, “news media” would be defined as “news
publications, accredited news services such as the Associated Press, licensed
radio and television broadcast stations or networks, and government-franchised
community cable television systems that originate scheduled news

For a newspaper or magazine to be considered a legitimate news publication,
it must possess a second-class mailing permit, publish at least weekly and
contain at least 25% general-interest news. Monthly magazines may qualify if
they boast a circulation of at least 25,000 and contain a broad range of news
and feature articles.

News organizations that wouldn't qualify according to the rules include
“broadcast programs syndicated by independent producers, or television stations
or networks devoted primarily to advocacy purposes or a particular point of

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors
Association, says the rules acknowledge the importance of media access but
failed to allow for it.

“Attempting to draw a line between who is a journalist and who is not sets a
dangerous precedent, disserves the public interest and abridges freedom of
speech and freedom of the press,” Cochran wrote in a letter to board Chairman
Allan Polunsky. “The rule is particularly disturbing in its endeavor to bar
particular types of programs and those with a particular point of view from
death row.”

Some say the department was attempting to control the coverage of capital
punishment in the state of Texas.

Specifically, they note such recent coverage as the Feb. 3, 1998, execution
of born-again killer Karla Faye Tucker. Broadcast outlets as diverse as “The 700
Club,” “Oprah” and the national networks offered programs examining the Tucker
case and Texas' death row.

Reynolds disagreed that the department had drafted the rules in response to
recent news coverage. He noted that the rules had been part of a longstanding
internal policy on access to death-row inmates that the department wished to

Soon after the rule was proposed last May, the department learned of the
concerns related to media access, Reynolds said. The department received more
than 1,000 comments, many from anti-death penalty advocates and inmate lawyers
but many more from media organizations. The board was scheduled to discuss the
proposed rules on July 23.

“The volume — but more so the content — of the comments was such that the
only prudent thing to do was have the board to withdraw the proposal and send me
back to the drawing board,” Reynolds said.