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Court: media ban does not pass test

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a District Court grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, ruling there were genuine issues of fact as to why they denied death row inmates from giving face-to-face interviews with the media.

In David Paul Hammer v. John D. Ashcroft, et al., No. 06-1750, Hammer sued Bureau of Prison officials, including then-Attorney General of the U.S., John Ashcroft, and former wardens of the federal prison in Terre Haute, Harley Lappin and Keith Olson. Hammer, a federal prisoner on death row at the time, claimed his First Amendment and equal protection rights were violated when the prison enforced a policy preventing death row inmates from giving face-to-face interviews with the media and from talking to the media about other inmates.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing the new policy was for the protection of the inmates and security reasons. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Hammer was one of the first death row inmates housed at the Special Confinement Unit (SCU) at the federal prison in Terre Haute in 1999. That year, Hammer gave three face-to-face interviews with the media with no issues. In late 2000, Lappin ordered Hammer not to speak about other inmates during media interviews. Hammer was disciplined shortly thereafter for providing information about another inmate but not for giving the interview.

After an interview with SCU inmate Timothy McVeigh aired on national television in 2000, a U.S. senator wrote an angry letter criticizing the Bureau of Prison officials for allowing the McVeigh interview. In April 2001, Ashcroft announced in a press conference that all SCU inmates would not be allowed to have in-person interviews with the media at all and that they may speak only to the media by telephone during their daily 15-minute allotment of phone time. The media policy signed by Lapin at the Terre Haute prison stated these rules applied only to SCU inmates sentenced to death.

The 7th Circuit examined Hammer's appeal by applying a test found in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987) - there must be a legitimate governmental interest in justifying the ban; the impact of accommodating the interview on inmates, guards, and other resources; there must be alternative means of exercising the right; and whether there are obvious, easy alternatives to the restriction.

Hammer submitted evidence to show the ban was not a result of prison security, as the officials suggested, but because of outrage over McVeigh's interview. Ashcroft explained his distaste for the content of the interviews given by death row inmates as the reason why the new policy was instituted. Other evidence also supports that there are not alternative means for Hammer to give an interview in person. Lappin stated the ban was to prevent the broadcast of the interview, but does not explain why interviews that are not recorded are banned. Because there are questions of material fact as to why the ban was instituted and whether there are any other outlets for Hammer to access the media, summary judgment in favor of the defendants should not have been granted, wrote Judge Ilana Rovner.

Because there are also issues of material fact on Hammer's equal protection claim, summary judgment should not have been granted on that claim.

The 7th Circuit also addressed Hammer's claims that the District Court erroneously denied his three motions to recruit counsel and his Rule 56(f) motion for continuance. The District Court did not meaningfully consider the complexity of this case and erred in not granting his motion for counsel. The court also abused its discretion in denying his Rule 56(f) motion for a continuance because he did not have counsel to help him specify which documents he needed during the discovery process.

The case is remanded for further proceedings.
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  1. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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