Sheriff’s critics get barred

First SN&R, now the Bee discriminated against by Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

Sheriff Blanas to print media: Say something nice or don’t say anything at all.

Sheriff Blanas to print media: Say something nice or don’t say anything at all.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Apparently, unless you have something good to say about the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, the law-enforcement and corrections agency doesn’t want you to say it at all.

At least not in print.

That much became clear earlier this month, when outgoing Sheriff Lou Blanas and the department reacted to a news story in The Sacramento Bee about allegations of excessive force inside the downtown Sacramento County Main Jail. The jail is run by the sheriff’s department, and Blanas greeted the bad PR by blacklisting the city’s only daily newspaper—refusing to allow his deputies to have conversations with Bee employees and insisting that all questions for news stories be submitted in writing.

It’s the same policy SN&R has been subject to for more than two-and-a-half years.

Press-freedom advocates say that using such a media-relations policy stifles Sacramento County residents’ access to public information and may be illegal.

“Newspapers … they really act as proxies for the First Amendment rights of their greater readership,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. By placing special conditions on reporters, taking days to respond to written requests, the department can make it nearly impossible to gather information in a timely manner.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also has been critical of the sheriff’s jail and defended the city’s print media.

“They are the only two newspapers that dared to question the treatment of the inmates and now have to submit any questions they have in writing,” wrote chapter President Betty Williams in a November 3 press release. “In my opinion, these two newspapers are the newest ‘inmates’ of the Sacramento County Jail.”

The reason Blanas gave in a letter to the Bee outlining the new policy: “the reporters did not collect all of the facts nor accurately report that information to the public.”

One fact that was reported incorrectly by the Bee was corrected in print the day after Blanas pointed it out.

The Bee then sent a letter to the sheriff citing case law on the issue and saying the new policy would not be acceptable, Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez told SN&R last week. Rodriguez and Bee Managing Editor Joyce Terhaar then met with Blanas and Undersheriff John McGinness. That may have solved the Bee’s question-asking problem.

“It doesn’t look like we’re going to have to go to a lawsuit,” Rodriguez said. “The issue of access has been settled.”

That leaves SN&R, which has never pursued legal action against the department.

For this article, SN&R e-mailed sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. R.L. Davis a list of questions on November 9. That was followed with a telephone call the following day. As of press time, neither the e-mail nor the phone call had been returned.

Scheer and others say that disparity in treatment—granting an interview to one reporter but not to another—is where Blanas may run afoul of the law.

The sheriff’s department does not have a similar policy regarding television and radio reporters, or even reporters from the region’s smaller newspapers, such as The Sacramento Observer or the Arden Carmichael News. The difference: Other media outlets rarely if ever are critical of the sheriff’s department.

No one, including public officials, is required to speak with a member of the media, said Tom Newton, attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The constitutional right to remain silent ensures that. It’s when the public official or public agency gives preferential treatment—or discriminatory treatment—among news agencies where they get into trouble, Newton said.

Similar discriminatory policies have been used elsewhere. In 2003, a former public-information officer for the Orange County district attorney’s office sued District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for wrongful termination, alleging, among other things, that she was ordered not to answer questions from several news agencies.

“Because Rackauckas … had political disputes with the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the OC Weekly and other news media representatives, Plaintiff was ordered not to return their calls or respond to their inquiries for public information,” Michelle Emard wrote in her lawsuit. The OC Weekly also wrote about the discriminatory policy, which, that paper said, gave preferential treatment to the Orange County Register. Emard’s lawsuit was thrown out in June of this year for lack of evidence.

The Baltimore Sun newspaper in Maryland filed a lawsuit late last year against Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who had banned certain administration officials from talking with two Sun writers whose coverage he disliked. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Scheer said Sheriff Blanas’ actions, and the other similar cases, don’t really surprise him.

“All public officials try to control, in some way, what the press writes about them,” he said. “But that usually gets them into trouble, legal trouble … when they go beyond spin and try to shut off coverage.”

The media-relations policy has hardly stemmed the flow of bad news coming from the county’s jail and about the sheriff’s department in general.

In recent years, the county-run jail has received publicity for multiple suicides inside its walls. And last year, a lawsuit over strip-searches performed in the jail resulted in a $15 million payout.

SN&R has run a number of stories critical of the sheriff’s department. It was some of those stories, published as far back as February 2003, that prompted the department to begin dealing with SN&R differently from other media outlets.

The department refused to answer questions for a February 13, 2003, SN&R cover story about the treatment of transgender inmates at the jail. “[Then-spokesman Sgt. Lou] Fatur’s only explanation on the phone, before he hung up, was that department officials were unhappy with SN&R’s past coverage of problems inside the jail,” wrote SN&R staffer Cosmo Garvin.

SN&R freelancer Stephen James, who has written frequently about the sheriff’s department and the corrections industry, has repeatedly been denied by the department. He was notified August 7, 2003, that the department would respond only to SN&R questions that fall under the California Public Records Act—a policy that precludes routine newsgathering questions that do not relate to official paper documents. The following day, the department sent James a letter responding to his inquiries about officer-involved shootings that said simply that his request was “DENIED.” “No interview will occur,” the letter said in bolded text.

More recently, lists of questions for news stories—some of them as basic as “What is the jail’s capacity?”—sent by e-mail from SN&R to current sheriff’s spokesman Davis, have gone unreturned.

Scheer said successful public officials must learn to accept scrutiny. “If you’re a sheriff, you can’t afford to be thin-skinned that way.”