Don’t ask, don’t tell

Sheriff blackballs SN&R for ‘unprofessional’ news gathering

Sheriff Lou Blanas, the consummate politician.

Sheriff Lou Blanas, the consummate politician.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When gun-rights groups sued Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas last month, alleging that he gave concealed-weapons permits to political cronies and campaign contributors, sheriff’s officials were quick to give interviews to The Sacramento Bee and strongly deny the allegations. When SN&R (which also had been following the allegations) sought comment, sheriff’s media people stonewalled, refusing to answer even basic questions over the phone.

When SN&R began looking into complaints last year that transgender inmates had been sexually assaulted in the main jail, sheriff’s officials demanded that any questions be submitted in writing. Then they refused to answer those written questions and denied access to documents that are open to the public under the California Public Records Act.

Last fall, when a jail inmate was accidentally released from custody—and jumped into the backseat of a local cab whose driver subsequently was surrounded by sheriff’s deputies with guns drawn—sheriff’s officials refused to answer questions from SN&R’s journalist Ryan Rauzon, including questions he submitted in writing.

Rauzon is a sometime contributor to SN&R and full-time producer for Capitol Television News Service. He’s dealt with Sheriff Lou Blanas and his employees in both jobs and said the difference is remarkable.

“Blanas is always good for a sound bite—usually a really good sound bite, too. He’s the consummate politician,” Rauzon explained.

“But when you say you’re from the News and Review, it’s like the black mark of death.”

The three aforementioned examples are just a small sampling of special treatment given to SN&R by the sheriff’s department. For more than a year, the agency has imposed a no-phone-call, no-verbal-comment policy that seems to apply only to this weekly newspaper and not to other media organizations.

Based on limited information given by sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Lou Fatur, the special rules appear intended to punish SN&R for coverage that sheriff’s department brass have deemed biased and inaccurate, although Fatur has never identified any specific inaccuracies in the coverage of his department or asked for a correction.

The policy presents a constant obstacle to SN&R reporters trying to gather news in a timely manner. More importantly, it appears to be in direct violation of decades of established media law. It also raises questions about how far a powerful law-enforcement agency can go to limit freedom of the press.

“It is unconstitutional,” said Tom Newton, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “The public has a right to a diversity of views. When a government agency starts to pick and choose, to try and control its own coverage, that harms the First Amendment.”

Several times in the past year, SN&R reporters have gotten the following boilerplate faxed statement from Fatur in response to requests for information.

“News and Review staff and writers. No verbal comments will be given on any case, to any writer. Any future questions or articles must be submitted in writing with specific questions. I will respond within 10 days of receipt of detailed questions, and will only respond to those questions that fall under the Public Records Act.”

But, when the department does respond to such written requests, the statements rarely contain much useful information. And, more often than not, written requests are summarily rejected, even when they seek information that is clearly disclosable under California records law.

Newton said he was surprised that Fatur actually would send such a statement in writing to SN&R, because it suggests that the agency has adopted an illegal policy tailor-made to limit one newspaper’s ability to get information in a timely manner, or to get information at all.

“These people are out there talking to the press everyday, but they appear to have blackballed you guys. That suggests that they don’t understand the constitutional dynamics of talking to the press,” he said.

There is nothing in the law that requires a law-enforcement agency, or any government agency, to talk to reporters about any case. But the courts have found repeatedly that once an agency decides to give information to the press, it is not allowed to give that information to some reporters and not to others.

In 1988, a daily newspaper in New Orleans won a precedent-setting case against the local sheriff, Harry Lee, who accused The Times-Picayune of being “inaccurate and systematically biased” against him. Lee barred Times-Picayune reporters from press conferences and forbade his officers from releasing any information to the news organization except in response to a written request and then only after Lee had approved of the information being released. The U.S. District Court found that Lee had discriminated against The Times-Picayune because he didn’t like the coverage he was getting, and the court found that policy to be unconstitutional.

In a similar case in Texas, a local district attorney refused to answer questions from one news organization without an appointment. The U.S. Court of Appeals found that the district attorney was simply discrim- inating against a disfavored newspaper and said, “All representatives of news organizations must not only be given equal access, but within reasonable limits, access with equal convenience to the news sources.”

Dan Weiser, news director at KCRA, Channel 3, said his station’s relationship with the sheriff’s department is very convenient.

“Whenever we have questions, they are very responsive and timely,” Weiser explained. When asked if KCRA reporters have ever been required to submit questions in writing, he replied, “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

The same goes for The Sacramento Bee, which printed quotes last week from numerous sources within the sheriff’s department, obtained by telephone. Attempts by SN&R to ask questions about these same stories were rebuffed.

Repeated attempts to get an explanation of the no-contact policy against SN&R led to several hang-ups and then accusations from Fatur that a particular SN&R reporter [author Cosmo Garvin] was unprofessional and had misquoted sheriff’s employees in past stories. During the past year, Fatur has expressed to several writers that he was unhappy with SN&R’s coverage of the department.

California First Amendment Coalition lawyer Terry Francke said it’s not unusual for police agencies to develop better relationships with some reporters than with others. “But that’s a far cry from saying, ‘We’re going to make it difficult for this one news organization to gather information,’” Francke explained.

“Here, the message to the media is: ‘You behave yourself, and we’ll give you the information.’” And that, said Francke, presents serious concerns about the freedom of information.

“The government is not permitted to blacklist members of the press, because that would quickly lead to a selection by the government only of the news it likes.”