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U.S. judges flub ruling on Ehrlich's worker gag order

February 17, 2006

As a result of a federal court ruling, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich can continue to bar state employees from speaking to writers from The (Baltimore) Sun that he's had problems with.

It's a terrible ruling, and while we understand that The Sun's decision not make its own legal battle an issue during an election year, we believe that sooner or later, this decision must be challenged.

Why? Because the governor didn't just refuse to speak to those writers himself. He also ordered that no state employees speak to them.

That means thousands of state employees have been enlisted in the governor's feud with two writers. While we agree that elected officials can decide which reporters they want to speak to, elected officials who use the power of their office to punish reporters are heading into dangerous territory.

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Unfortunately, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., didn't see it that way.

According to The Associated Press, the panel ruled that the governor's order had a "minimal effect" on the journalists' ability to do their jobs.

Please. Banning state employees from talking to reporters and/or columnists from the state's largest newspaper is a bit like banning seed dealers from talking to farmers.

Even worse, what this ruling does is sanction this governor's decision to use the power of his office to punish those who don't give him favorable coverage.

If Ehrlich were allowed to get away with this, the only news readers would get would be feel-good, happy-talk stories that don't ask probing questions because reporters would fear being added to the governor's enemies list.

And, although this ruling says much about the judges' lack of respect for the First Amendment, the controversy says more about the governor and his lack of tolerance for hard-edged reporting and commentary.

Given that, citizens should be glad he wasn't one of the Founding Fathers and the target of criticism such as that aimed at Thomas Jefferson.

In Edwin Emery's history of U.S. Journalism, "The Press and America," he writes that in 1805, the New England Palladium referred to Thomas Jefferson as "a coward, a calumniator, plagiarist, a spiritless animal."

Despite such criticism, Jefferson stuck by his resolve to protect the free press, feeling that when offered many varying views, citizens would use reason rather than emotion to figure out the best course.

In banning state employees from speaking to certain Sun staffers, the governor is saying that he knows better than citizens do about what they should be able to read.

If that doesn't scare Marylanders, then nothing will.

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