Maryland governor should drop his ban on Sun staffers

November 26, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who from time to time has had strained relations with the press, made things worse this month when he announced that state officials would be forbidden to talk to a bureau chief and a columnist for The (Baltimore) Sun.

We agree with the Sun's editors and attorneys who say that the ban is an assault on the First Amendment. If elected officials got to choose the reporters allowed to speak to them, no journalist who asked the hard questions would have a job.

Ehrlich's gripe with columnist Michael Olesker involves two columns, one in which Olesker described the expression on a state official's face, even though Olesker didn't attend the press conference where the official spoke.

The other is Olesker's column with Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, based on an interview at Pimlico Race Course which Steele says he doesn't remember giving.


The governor's complaint about David Nitkin, The Sun's State House bureau chief, stems from Nitkin's reporting on the governor's plan to sell 836 acres of state land in St. Mary's County to a well-connected contractor. A map that appeared with a follow-up story on Ehrlich's plan to sell what he feels is excess state property contained an error, a mistake The Sun corrected.

Ehrlich should relent, for several reasons. Such bans are more trouble for state officials than they are for reporters.

Why? Because the officials, fearful they will irritate the boss, tend to stop giving out even routine information to all reporters.

That, in turn, generates Freedom of Information Act requests, which take up time state officials should be spending on other matters.

The second reason to end the ban is that it creates the impression that the administration has something to hide. Its complaints with Olesker are small stuff indeed. Ehrlich has cited no problems with the land-sale story, although he probably wishes it had never been written.

But the best reason to end this ban is because it makes the governor look weak, as if he can't stand up to the press. He ought to do what elected officials have done with this newspaper and ask for space to make his case. After that, citizens can decide whether Ehrlich has a valid complaint, or just a bad attitude.

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