J.A.I.L. News Journal
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Los Angeles, California                                                     April 2, 2006
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First Amendment Under Attack
By South Dakota Judiciary
A Newspaper With Guts: We offer our gratitude and commendations to
Randell Beck, (rabeck@argusleader.com), reporter for the South Dakota
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 attack

Politicians, others playing loose with public's right to information  


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 Dale Blegen.

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 broken.

South Dakota's laws never have made it easy to collect that information. Now, it's getting even harder.

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 University.   Not.

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 innocence.

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 that.''

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 university itself.
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 lawyer.

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 none.

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 rabeck@argusleader.com.

J.A.I.L. highly praises Reporter Randell Beck, and recommends that our readers contact him and let him know how you feel about this story. Should you chose to use the telephone number, the area code is (605) 331-2332.

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"..it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless
minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds.." - Samuel Adams
 
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is
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