Shoptalk: Discriminatory Policies Won’t Stand
Posted: 1/24/2012 | By: Jeremy M. Lazarus
For the first time in decades, the Virginia Supreme Court is seeking to revamp its press policy that systematically discriminates against black- and minority-owned newspapers in the coverage of events such as the investiture of new judges.
Sexist language also is being deliberately scrubbed from the court’s website and publications.
Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser disclosed both efforts in a sit-down meeting at the Supreme Court with the court’s toughest critic on both issues, Richmond Free Press editor/publisher Raymond H. Boone.
For more than 10 years, the Free Press has blasted the court for violating the First Amendment by excluding Free Press photographers from covering investitures on behalf of the 200 black-owned newspapers nationwide.
The latest example: the Sept. 1, 2011 investiture of Justice Elizabeth A. McClannahan. A Free Press photographer was barred from the Supreme Court building to cover the ceremony. Instead, Free Press photographer Sandra Sellars could shoot outside the court building, while a photographer from the daily, white-owned Richmond Times-Dispatch was given the exclusive opportunity to snap the ceremony on behalf of The Associated Press.
The Free Press also has hammered the court for the continued use of “his” and “he” gender references in its publications and on its website, rather than striving for gender neutrality.
The chief justice requested the meeting in an Aug. 31 email to Boone from the court. The email was in response to an Aug. 30 letter Boone couriered to the chief justice requesting a change in the press policy. Also on hand for the meeting was new Justice Cleo E. Powell, the first African-American woman to sit on the bench of the state’s top court. Justice Powell was formally installed Oct. 21, 2011.
Most of the focus was on the press policy that also has drawn concern from press organizations, including the Virginia Press Association, the Coalition for Open Government, and the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association.
Legislators also have been concerned. Before the meeting, Richmond Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who chairs the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which is involved with judicial appointments, expressed support for the calls for change by the Free Press.
No decisions on a new press policy have been made, the chief justice emphasized, but she also stressed that the court is seeking ways to improve its coverage policy and end the criticism from the Free Press and its growing group of allies.
The goal, she said, is to craft a policy that would serve the court “now and in the future.” Boone agreed, saying the policy should be guided by fairness.
She noted that each justice, not the court, chooses the site for the investiture ceremony. Space is at a premium when the court’s small formal courtroom is used, she said, leaving little room for photographers and reporters if family, friends, and invited guests are to be accommodated.
She said the court “is considering” allowing two press photographers to cover the ceremony rather than continuing the practice of restricting coverage to one photographer plus a pool videographer for broadcast outlets.
Chief Justice Kinser also indicated the court might ask the Virginia Press Association to manage a revolving list of newspapers interested in providing coverage to ensure that no one photographer or newspaper would dominate coverage.
Boone said the court would “send a message” that this was a new day by allowing the Free Press to be first on such a list.
Chief Justice Kinser told Boone that she supported his position opposing sexist language in court publications and on its website. She said that since February when she took office, she has had the court’s staff comb through the website and court publications in order to eliminate “inappropriate gender language.”
She invited Boone to assist in efforts to expunge antiquated gender references in the court’s electronic and print media. He agreed to do so.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 22-24 edition of the Free Press and has been edited for length.