A Newspaper With
Guts: We offer our gratitude and commendations
Argus Leader, for bravely reporting on a politically
incorrect subject, namely,
calling into question the ethical conduct of the
South Dakota Judiciary for
defying the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. - Ron Branson
First Amendment under
Politicians, others playing loose with
public's right to
April 2, 2006
Spring, at last, might be in the air. But make
no mistake, dear reader. A cold wind is blowing
across South Dakota.
Whether it's the governor spending your hard-earned
tax dollars on lawyers to resist disclosing the names
of buddies invited to his annual pheasant hunt, or
the Legislature's cowardly capitulation to the NRA to
close pistol permits to the public, those of us who
think government ought to be accountable to the
public are being backed into a tight corner. And lest
you think that freedom of information is something
only the ACLU cares about, let me introduce you to
Blegen is publisher and editor of The De Smet News,
one of the best weekly newspapers in the state. Every
week for a long time, Blegen has dropped by the
Kingsbury County Courthouse to check the latest
judgments in small claims court. He records them -
usually it's just a handful - and publishes them in
the next issue of his newspaper.
Over time, Blegen has found that little list, like a
lot of the minutiae in newspapers, is a public
service. Merchants appreciate it because it alerts
them to folks who might have trouble paying their
bills. The county clerk appreciates it because people
being sued are more likely to pay up, rather than see
their name in the paper. And readers - well, they
consider it vital information about what's happening
in their community.
Few things link people of any place like a newspaper.
It is where you find out who has died - and who has
been born. You learn that your taxes are going up -
or down. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, road
construction. A newspaper, whether daily or weekly,
reflects the ebb and flow of life itself. Without
one, we lose a connection to our neighbors - the ones
we know and the ones we don't know.
And without certain information, a bond is
South Dakota's laws never have made it easy to
collect that information. Now, it's getting even
Beginning last week, changes approved by the state's
Unified Judicial System will compile all civil
judgments into an electronic database, replacing the
old docket books long maintained by court clerks.
The problem is, it now will cost money to access that
database - $4 per search, and $1 to view a judgment
docket. Or, you can pay $2,500 for an annual
subscription to the statewide database. It's true in
Kingsbury County - and everywhere else in South
Dakota. It's true for Blegen - and any other citizen
who used to think the free flow of information
actually meant that - free.
How much are you willing to pay?
After 40 years of newspapering and advocating for the
First Amendment, Blegen said he's discouraged by
what's happening in South Dakota.
"We're not gaining,'' he said. "You look around at
other states and openness is a way of life. Here,
it's just the opposite.''
Speaking of the First Amendment: It's alive and well
on the campus of South Dakota State
You might have heard that a Circuit Court judge
recently ordered the student-run Collegian to turn
over unpublished photos of a fracas that occurred
after a campus power outage in October. A lawyer
defending a student charged with inciting the alleged
riot wanted to introduce the photos as evidence there
was no riot - thus proving his client's
A lawyer for the Collegian filed a motion to quash
the subpoena - a motion summarily dismissed by that
well-known lover of a free and vigorous press, Judge
Rodney Steele of Brookings.
"He basically rolled his eyes and said, 'What First
Amendment? There is no First Amendment issue here,' "
said Sherry Fuller Bordewyk, who's been the
newspaper's adviser since January. "And that was
And why, you might ask, would a newspaper resist such
a court order? Isn't it merely being a good citizen
by giving up what is sought?
Let's let Kristin Marthaler, editor in chief at the
Collegian, explain: Newspapers, she wrote in her
column last week, "should not have to give out names
or hand over photos to the government or act like the
long arm of the law. Who will want to talk to the
media if they know their information can get turned
over to officials?''
Well said, Kristin. An independent press cannot be a
check on the power of government, as the
Constitution's framers clearly intended, if it's
dragged before every Rodney Steele in the land to
turn over its notes and photos.
That said, the real villain in this sad tale is the
SDSU President Peggy Miller has made no secret of her
disdain for the Collegian, which gets no state money
and has, for some time, been on life support.
Ironically, this is the same university where the
state's only journalism school is located.
With the courts pressing for its photos, the
Collegian naturally sought to hire the preeminent
First Amendment lawyer in South Dakota - Sioux Falls'
Jon Arneson, who frequently represents this newspaper
in battles for public access. The university said no
- referring the Collegian staff, instead, to a
Brookings lawyer who handles SDSU matters but
admittedly knows little about press law. He lost.
Perhaps predictably, when Steele ordered the
newspaper to comply, there was no appeal. And the
photos now are in the hands of the student's
Don't waste your time waiting for the hue and cry
from professors - frequently the first to whine about
limits on academic freedom - or any corner of the
university other than the Collegian staff. There was
Maybe, after all, Rodney Steele is on to something:
First Amendment? What First Amendment?
Confidential to the governor's mansion: OK, we get it
already. You're still sore about the Argus Leader
stories in September chronicling your profligate use
of state airplanes. And you're going to make us pay
by refusing to talk to our reporter in Pierre. We get
that. But six months of sulking seems sufficient.
People don't like politicians who pout.
Randell Beck is executive editor of the Argus Leader.
Contact him at 331-2332 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.