Columns » Max Brantley

Official secrets

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There’s been a positive development since last I wrote about Gov. Mike Huckabee’s decision to stop publicly financed press services to the Arkansas Times.

A coalition of major journalism organizations wrote the following letter to the governor May 12.

“Dear Governor Huckabee:

The undersigned national journalism organizations are dismayed by your actions in selectively excluding certain media from the list of those notified in advance of your press conferences and other public appearances, simply because of your personal disregard for a particular publication. You are, of course, entitled to your own opinions and to express your disagreement, but we believe it is poor public policy for any governor or any public official to inhibit access to public information, directly or indirectly, simply because he or she dislikes the messenger. It is ultimately the citizen who is less informed and penalized as a result.

We take exception, as well, to the declaration on your website that the Arkansas Times is not a ‘legitimate’ newspaper. The fact that it has the fourth highest circulation of any newspaper in your state suggests it has been widely accepted by Arkansas residents and that it has earned the confidence of many of your constituents. But our concern goes beyond that. The word ‘legitimate’ has a precise definition and when its use is combined with an action that can only be seen as an official gubernatorial sanction, the result strikes a blow at free expression and at the core of our democracy, the First Amendment.

We urge you in your official capacity as governor to treat the Arkansas Times as you do all other media regularly covering the Capitol by providing them with the same notice of public appearances and in the same manner, and to not in any other way inhibit the free flow of public information that is so critical to our system of governance.

Pete Weitzel, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government

Sig Christensen, Military Editors and Reporters

Associated Press Managing Editors

American Society of Newspaper Editors

California First Amendment Coalition

CapitolBeat (Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors)

Committee of Concerned Journalists

National Federation of Press Women

National Press Club

Society of Professional Journalists”

Thanks to all. But, as I write, the governor has not responded to this letter. He earlier ignored a letter from the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

We could sue — under the Freedom of Information Act, on a First Amendment violation and to test the governor’s overreaching interpretation of a “working papers” exemption. He contends that everything in his office from news releases to a report on an errant former parole board member is a working paper. (The parole board report was moved to Huckabee’s office so he could cover up what the report contained. The Democrat-Gazette has sued over this and good luck to them.)

But legal technicalities obscure the core issue. The governor is using taxpayer money to punish free speech. It’s un-American. It’s also a poor witness by the former Baptist preacher to the Bible’s teaching about dealing with your enemies.

Time is our foe and friend. A court case likely can’t be resolved until after the governor leaves office. His potential successors have said they won’t continue his retaliatory policy. That day arrives in less than eight months. The governor’s pettiness and disdain for the First Amendment will remain on his permanent record.


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