A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

Ban on prison interviews stirs debate

Death-row inmate David Paul Hammer, 43, has filed a lawsuit alleging that his First Amendment rights have been violated by rules put into effect after the Timothy McVeigh interview that aired in May 2001 on “60 Minutes.” The suit has divided sharply those who believe inmates use reporters for their own gains and those who believe wardens do the same.

Regulations that ban face-to-face interviews with federal death-row inmates and that do not allow the broadcast of any taped interviews go too far, said Hammer, a prisoner at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

A U.S. District Court dismissed the case as having no merit, but a federal appeals court reversed the decision. According to Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley, wardens at the federal prisons can each determine their own rules about media access. Harley Lappin, former warden at Terre Haute, has stated that he restricted access during and after the McVeigh interview due to safety and security concerns.

Government can close deportation hearings

The government can close immigration hearings, a federal appeals court ruled on Oct. 8 in Philadelphia. The three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of a lower court.

This comes as another blow to news organizations who have battled for access to deportation hearings involving foreigners who have been taken into custody for alleged terrorism activities. Lawyers for the Justice Department said reporters and others could pose national security threats if they are allowed to view and document the proceedings.

The ruling disagrees with one from the 6th Circuit in August. In that ruling, the court found that secret deportation hearings could not be held for a Lebanese man with possible terrorism ties. The indecision of these courts makes it likely that the Supreme Court may choose to hear an appeal of one of the cases to determine a precedent for such closed hearings. News organizations may appeal the 3rd Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court or may ask that it be reheard by the full 3rd Circuit, according to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who argued the case for two New Jersey publications. The public and media have been kept out of deportation hearings for nearly a year.