A deputy federal marshal violated the law and “the fundamental tenets of press freedom” when she ordered two reporters to erase recordings of a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a journalists’ advocacy group said Thursday.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a letter that the marshal violated the Privacy Protection Act, which says government officers may not seize materials in the possession of people who plan to distribute them through public communication.
“It is clear that the statute’s purpose is to provide maximum protection for the news media against seizures of work product,” the group wrote in a letter signed by Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish, Legal Defense Director Gregg Leslie and Kirsten Murphy, a legal fellow.
Justice Department employees should receive approval from the attorney general before ordering a journalist to turn over work materials, the letter said. Because the marshal failed to do so, her actions should lead to a reprimand or other disciplinary action, according to the letter.
“We also urge that all such officials be reminded of the important interests at stake when dealing with the news media,” the letter said.
The letter was addressed to Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Marshals Service Director Benigno G. Reyna and Nehemiah Flowers, the U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Mississippi.
During a speech Scalia gave on the Constitution in Hattiesburg on Wednesday, a woman who identified herself as Deputy Marshal Melanie Rube demanded that a reporter for The Associated Press erase a tape recording of the justice’s comments.
The reporter initially resisted, but later showed the deputy how to erase the digital recording after the officer took the device from her. The marshal also made a Hattiesburg American reporter erase her tape.
“We’re very upset over the forced erasure of our reporter’s tape and believe that crossed the line,” AP Mississippi Chief of Bureau Frank Fisher said Thursday. “We hope that this will never happen again.”
Fisher added that the erasure “doesn’t show a lot of respect for the First Amendment.”
Scalia gave two speeches Wednesday in Hattiesburg, one at Presbyterian Christian High School and the other at William Carey College. He did not warn the audience at the high school that recording devices would be forbidden, but issued a warning before the college speech.
At a reception following Scalia’s speech at William Carey, the justice told television reporters from Hattiesburg station WDAM-TV to leave. A member of his entourage also told newspaper photographers they could not take pictures, but a college official reversed the order after non-media guests started snapping photos.
William Carey spokeswoman Jeanna Graves later apologized to the media.
A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court said it is up to Scalia and his staff to set guidelines for coverage of his events.
Spokespeople for the Justice Department and Marshals Service did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment Thursday.