First Amendment groups spoke out strongly this week against the exclusion of The Berkeley Scanner from a recent press event with Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price.
The account prompted an outpouring of support from readers and other members of the media.
It also led to the issuance Thursday of a strongly worded letter to DA Price from the First Amendment Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and SPJ NorCal, the Bay Area chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In their letter, the groups reiterated the importance of press freedom and said that any First Amendment violations, such as exclusionary access to media events and press announcements, "must be immediately rescinded."
Read the full letter from the First Amendment Coalition.
"Beyond the threat to Ms. Raguso’s press freedoms, your office’s actions exert a chilling effect on the journalism community as a whole," they wrote. "No reporter should have to couch their coverage of public officials for fear of losing basic rights guaranteed to the media. Whatever your office’s intent may have been, its actions suggest that reporters will be punished for critical coverage. The First Amendment does not tolerate such interference with a free press, intentional or otherwise."
The First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press among other fundamental constitutional rights.
How did we get here?
After being on the media announcement list for the Alameda County DA's office for over a decade, the office removed Scanner founder Emilie Raguso in August without warning or notice.
The Scanner asked repeatedly in October and November to be put back on the email list but was told only that the media list was "under review."
No other information was provided and no mention was ever made of restricted access to press events or the need for a DA-approved press credential.
Read more about Pamela Price on The Scanner.
On Wednesday morning, two media contacts for the DA's office refused to allow The Scanner to attend a press conference with DA Price at her office headquarters in Oakland.
They said they had stepped up security after experiencing "safety issues" and could therefore not let The Scanner inside pending further review.
Meanwhile, other members of the media were let into the event without any review of their affiliations or credentials.
Officials cannot selectively target members of the press
In their letter Thursday, SPJ NorCal and the First Amendment groups noted how DA's office staff had elected to ignore The Scanner's official press credential.
They also pointed out that credentials are not required to confirm that someone is a reporter.
"Nonetheless, it confirmed she is a member of the press, but your staff still refused to allow her into the press conference," they wrote.
The groups also called into question the legality of the alleged basis for excluding The Scanner from the event.
"The lack of any specific factual basis for the claimed safety concerns strongly suggests they were pretextual," they wrote. "Selective targeting of members of the press for exclusion is blatantly unconstitutional, regardless of whether the government intends to discriminate based on content."
DA's office has not responded to multiple Scanner inquiries
The Alameda County DA's office has not responded to any Scanner inquiries — via email or phone — since Wednesday morning.
But, in a statement provided to the San Francisco Chronicle, the DA's office said that reporters from KTVU, ABC 7 News, Telemundo 48 and KQED had attended Wednesday's press event.
In reference to The Scanner, they wrote that, "An uninvited person, not on the media list, was turned away for lacking the required media credentials."
They wrote that, "The Alameda County District Attorney’s office requires all media members to have an official press credential issued by a bonified national news network, local news affiliate, or a long-standing independent news journal," adding, "Among those standards is a newsroom with a management structure and editorial oversight."
The DA's office claimed these standards are longstanding and predate DA Price, but sources familiar with prior office policies disputed that assertion.
"We had no such rule," one person said.
It should also be noted that this reporter attended DA's office press conferences under the prior administration and also with DA Price earlier this year and that no credentials were reviewed or required.
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The Scanner has an official press credential from The Oakland Police Department, which is reviewed annually to ensure compliance with longstanding requirements.
Many law enforcement agencies issue press credentials, which are routinely accepted in all circumstances when such credentials are required (which are rare).
The DA's office has not historically issued press credentials and there is no indication that it does so at this time.
A fight for equal access for all members of the media
In their letter, the First Amendment Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and SPJ NorCal wrote that "the First Amendment prohibits the government from arbitrarily excluding specific reporters from access to press conferences or other facilities or materials generally open to the media," in part because "the government cannot be 'allowed to affect the content or tenor of the news by choreographing which news organizations have access to relevant information.'"
They also asked the DA's office for "a public commitment by your office that going forward, all members of the press will receive equal access to press releases and any other general announcements as well as equal opportunity to attend any events generally open to the media."
The Scanner will continue to pursue this matter with First Amendment experts until these apparently unconstitutional standards are remedied.
The Scanner has also filed a Public Records Act request with the Alameda County DA's office in relation to its media access policies.
As of publication time, The Scanner's related thread on X (formerly Twitter) has been viewed more than 290,000 times.
Clarification: Scanner founder Emilie Raguso was on the DA's office email list for over a decade. The Scanner, founded in 2022, was not. The story has been clarified.
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