The Justice Department last week responded to reports that a Civil Rights Division lawyer threatened a journalist at a public meeting in Louisiana, downplaying the incident in letters (here and here) to the journalist’s boss and a press freedom group.
But Gregg Leslie, the acting executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Main Justice he is disappointed with the department’s response, calling it a “non-answer.”
In a pair of letters sent on July 10 and July 12 to Leslie’s predecessor at the press freedom group, Lucy Dalglish, and the journalist’s boss Jeff Zeringue the department noted the reporter in question, Matthew Beaton, published a story shortly after the June 12 meeting that quoted the Justice Department lawyer, Rachel Hranitzky.
But the letters do not address Hranitzky’s reported behavior at the meeting, held to address the hiring practices at the New Iberia, La., fire department. Hranitzky reportedly “grew belligerent and threatening” and said “special rules” prohibited her from being quoted or recorded, the Daily Iberian reported. Zeringue and Dalglish sent letters expressing their concern to the department.
The department’s response to Dalglish said: “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 (OPA) for further information and additional statements.” It continues: ”OPA has consistently and uniformly been available to press and The Daily Iberian to answer inquiries about this case … OPA specifically has answered numerous inquiries from The Daily Iberian from both the reporter who covered the June 12 meeting and the managing editor of the outlet.”
Said Leslie: ”It’s disappointing that they don’t quite get what we were complaining about. Even if the reporter ended up getting the story, it’s still a problem that Justice Department officials are trying to interfere with” the news-gathering process, he said. He also said he was worried the DOJ was trying to “impose secrecy” at public meetings.
In the letter addressed to Dalglish, who recently departed as head of the press freedom group, the department says all public meetings have been and will continue to be open to the press. The letter to Zeringue said: ”The Department of Justice shares your commitment to the freedoms afforded by the United States Constitution, including the First Amendment, and acts aggressively to protect those fundamental values.” Zeringue was not immediately available for comment.
Leslie said the incident points to a “serious problem” and will be watching for similar stories “very closely.”
“We’re worried about things like this becoming a bigger and bigger trend because newspaper have fewer and fewer resources to tackle these kinds of problems and for some reasons officials think they have a right to say ’sure ill talk at this meeting but nobody can quote me,’ ” he said. ”With the Department of Justice doing nothing about the incident it’s going to have to be addressed more squarely in the future.”
The incident prompted Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to demand of Attorney General Eric Holder answers. The lawmaker wants to know if the Attorney General has started an investigation.
“[I]f the reports about the incident and the existence of a DOJ policy or DOJ ’special rules’ are accurate, it would amount to a raw abuse of power and a complete disregard for the First Amendment and state open meetings laws,” Grassley wrote Holder.
In addition, Reps. Jeff Landry (R-La.), and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) each sent letters expressing their concern about the incident to the Justice Department.