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December 08, 2004

The Baltimore Sun and Governor Ehrlich

It may be a personality flaw with me, but I find these things immensely enjoyable. The Baltimore Sun, which is the 800-pound gorilla of the Maryland press (meaning Maryland, not D.C.), filed a lawsuit last Friday against Governor Ehrlich challenging his order that state employees not speak to a Sun reporter, David Nitkin, and a Sun columnist, Michael Olesker, as a violation of freedom of the press. The complaint is found here. Ehrlich contends that these journalists have made many misstatements of fact about his administration. Also, he's still angry at the Sun for editorializing during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that Michael Steele, who ran with Ehrlich as Lt. Governor, "brings little to the team but the color of his skin."

I'm not going to don my "Volokh" hat and start expounding on the First Amendment. Nor will I weigh in about what the "experts" are saying about the suit. But I do think there are some interesting things about this brouhaha.

First, leave aside the legalities. Governor Ehrlich obviously thinks this is a political winner for him, beating up on the big boys in the press. Ehrlich has previously said publicly that "his directive preventing state officials from speaking with two journalists at The Sun was 'meant to have a chilling effect' on 'two writers who have no credibility.'" My view that this is a political stunt by the governor (who obviously feels wronged) was confirmed today in a Washington Post article, which said:

Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that he personally believes that Ehrlich's edict is "foolish" but that it probably won't cause any long-term political damage.

"This plays to his base very well," Norris said. "His conservative base doesn't like the Baltimore Sun, period. It sees the Sun as biased against Ehrlich. They're saying, 'Hurrah, Bob.'"

Second, the Sun's in-house counsel needs some public relations training. Here's her pronouncement on the suit:

"This is just a back-door effort to get a reporter who has published stories that the governor didn't like kicked off the beat and a back-door effort to get a columnist to be forced to write with one hand behind his back," said Tribune Co. attorney Stephanie S. Abrutyn, who filed the suit on behalf of The Sun, a Tribune-owned newspaper.

She continued: "On a broader level, this is not about just these two reporters. If the governor is allowed to do this, any reporter ... would be foolish not to think twice about what they say or write."

She sure makes it sound as if the Sun reporters generally write whatever springs to mind without thinking much about it.

Third, the Sun comes out of this dispute looking like a schoolyard bully who starts whining when someone stands up to him. This is not an opinion on the legal merits of the case; it's an opinion about public perception. Governor Ehrlich is only the governor of the state. The Sun is, well, it's the Sun, the schoolyard bully.

Fourth, I think a more interesting lawsuit would be brought by a state employee who was disciplined for speaking to one of the journalists on a matter of public concern.

Oh, forget the legal stuff. Just sit back and enjoy the fight.