The union leadership presumably knew its gesture was unlikely to succeed, as prior restraint is reserved almost exclusively for information that could harm national security, such as revealing troop movements during a time of war. The US Supreme Court in 1971 would not even halt publication of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

But Judge Hopkins, incredibly, ordered WHDH to remain silent on the grounds that autopsy reports are private documents, ignoring the long-established principle that it was the government’s obligation, not the media’s, to maintain that privacy. WHDH paid a heavy price for being first: within hours, the report had leaked to other media outlets, and virtually every news organization ran stories except Channel 7.

The next day, Hopkins was overturned in a toughly worded opinion by Appeals Court judge Andrew Grainger, in which he observed that “the presumption against prior restraints on free speech has prevailed even when the materials at issue are stolen and deal with issues of national security” — as, indeed, was the case with the Pentagon Papers.

It was too late to undo the harm to WHDH and its viewers. Hopkins, though, had received a much-needed lesson in Constitution 101.

A.T. WALL
He proposed making it harder to cover RI prisons

The ACLU of Rhode Island and the Providence Journal were full of praise this past January, when the Rhode Island Department of Corrections backed off from a proposal that would have made it far more difficult for journalists to cover what goes on in the state’s prison system.

And, yes, the department’s director, A.T. Wall, does deserve credit for not following through on the worst of his ideas (detailed below), unveiled the previous September. But he gets a Muzzle anyway — a warning Muzzle, if you will — for failing to understand right from the start the importance of journalistic access to the men and women behind bars.

Among other things, the original proposal would have:

• Banned interviews with out-of-state inmates (primarily prisoners deemed to be troublemakers in their home states who are sent to Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions, in Cranston).

• Allowed corrections officials to review reporters’ notes and recordings.

• Required a corrections official to be present at all interviews.

• Given corrections officials the power to refuse an interview with an inmate if it were determined that it would not be “sensitive to the feelings and needs of crime victims.”

Significantly, Wall decided to keep the out-of-state ban. And yet Wall is getting credit for showing sensitivity to the needs of the press while still making it harder for reporters to inform us about what goes on — well, behind the wall.

“The public-hearing process works,” Wall said, referring to a session at which members of the media voiced their objections and concerns. “We try hard to balance our need for proper security and the availability [of inmates] for the media.”

That’s fine. It could have been worse. But the media and the ACLU shouldn’t have had to mobilize in the first place. There are few governmental powers more awesome than the power to deny people their freedom. Prisons are already notoriously difficult for journalists to cover. Wall was wrong in his attempt to make it even more difficult.

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