UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comment from the Justice Department. Please refer to the bottom of the article.
A Justice Department trial attorney is under fire for demanding that a journalist not report her comments made during a public hearing in Louisiana. If department officials refuse to address the attorney’s behavior, they can “expect us to raise hell,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told Main Justice.
At a public hearing in the New Iberia, La., city hall earlier this month, Rachel Hranitzky, a senior trial attorney with the Civil Rights Division, told local reporter Matthew Beaton that special Justice Department rules prohibited him from quoting or recording her. The hearing was held to address the hiring and promotion process at the New Iberia Fire Department
“We are gravely concerned over any internal practice or policy of preventing journalists from recording or quoting statements made by DOJ officials,” Dalglish wrote in a letter to the Justice Department about the incident. “Restricting the public’s right to report on federal officials’ actions at public meetings clearly conflicts with the mandates of the First Amendment and state open government laws.”
Beaton planned to file reports on the story with The Daily Iberian, a local newspaper. But an adamant Hranitzky told him he could not record or quote her.
“You can’t quote me or record the meeting,” she declared according to the Daily Iberian. “You can quote those who speak, but you cannot quote me.”
The New Iberia assistant fire chief and a handful of residents said the meeting had been advertised as public and challenged Hranitzky’s claims.
Hranitzky “grew belligerent and threatening” and said if Beaton did not follow her directive he would be asked to leave, the Daily Iberian reported.
“[The Department of Justice] can call your editors and publisher at the paper, and trust you don’t want to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side,” Hranitzky reportedly said.
Beaton said that after the meeting Hranitzky told him she had been quoted in the past and gotten in trouble with the department.
“She said that there are ’special rules’ by which attorneys are quoted,” he said in an interview with Main Justice. “Afterwards she told me the Department of Justice keeps a short leash on how their attorneys are quoted and she could get in big trouble if she were quoted in a newspaper.”
The city of New Iberia is legally bound to evaluate the hiring practices of its municipalities because of a history of discrimination, Beaton said. Hranitzky held last month’s meeting to evaluate the Fire Department’s hiring practices. Beaton said prior to the meeting the assistant fire chief was “quite outspoken” about what he thought were inappropriate hiring practices within his department.
“It kind of undercut him not to have everybody properly quoted there,” Beaton says. “It had been advertised in the paper that it was a public meeting, there was no doubt about that.”
The incident provoked outcry from two members of Congress. Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), and the RCFP executive director each sent letters expressing their concern to the Justice Department.
This never should have happened,” Dalglish said. “If they try to maintain it [Hranitzky's invocation of department's "special privileges"] as a policy that’s a big problem — a really, really, big problem.”
But both the lawmakers and the Reporter’s Committee have yet to hear back from the department.
“I think the reason we haven’t heard back from them yet is because they know it’s bogus,” says Dalglish. “My hunch is that they’re still trying to figure out what happened.”
Landry said in his letter: ”I find it wholly unacceptable that our government, specifically the DOJ, has not responded. I have yet to find statutory authority that sanctions the actions of Ms. Hranitzky.”
Beaton said the most frustrating part of the ordeal was the department’s unwillingness to address the issue or give any explanation for Hranitzky’s actions.
“Is she the only one going to these meetings and demanding she not be quoted? Or is this a general practice across the entire department?” he asked. “It’s certainly a cause for concern if that’s what everyone is doing.”
The Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs deputy director Nanda Chitre provided Main Justice with the following comment:
The Department of Justice welcomes the public and the press at compliance meetings in an effort to promote an open exchange of information and to ensure particular jurisdictions are meeting the requirements of the department’s consent decrees. As is our standard practice, attorneys speaking on behalf of the department at public meetings may at times refer reporters to the Department’s Office of Public Affairs for further information and additional statements. The Civil Rights Division attorney who appeared in New Iberia at the June 12, 2012 meeting did not prevent any reporter from staying at a public meeting, and never attempted to alter or stop a news story. The reporter from the Daily Iberian not only was present for the entire meeting, but the newspaper published multiple articles related to the meeting using quotes attributed to a department attorney. Additionally, other media outlets have attended similar public meetings regarding the U.S. v. City of Alexandria, et al. consent decree, including The Times Picayune, the ABC television affiliate in Baton Rouge, and both the CBS and FOX television affiliates in the city of Harahan.