At Supreme Court Hearing, Roberts Addresses Media Access

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By: LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer

The government should not bar the media from recording events to which the public has access, such as the government’s response and recovery effort from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, chief justice nominee John Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“There is great difficulty whenever you try to distinguish between public rights and media rights,” Roberts said, responding to a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. during his confirmation hearing.

“If it’s a situation in which the public is being given access, you can’t discriminate against the media and say, as a general matter, that the media don’t have access, because their access rights, of course, correspond with those of the public,” Roberts added.

Asked by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whether he would allow cameras in the high courtroom or bar them, as did the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Roberts referred to former Tennessee senator- turned-actor Fred Thompson, who has been shepherding him through the nomination process.

“My new best friend, Senator Thompson, assures me that television cameras are nothing to be afraid of,” Roberts said, eliciting laughter.

Less lighthearted was his exchange with Leahy, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who said he is concerned generally about the Bush administration’s policy toward media access. Leahy cited reports that government officials had restricted members of the media from reporting and photographing the cleanup and rescue efforts in New Orleans.

“Suppose [administration officials] felt that the rescue operations of the government, whether it’s state, local or federal, was being handled in an inept way, or evacuees are being mistreated,” Leahy asked Roberts. “Does that give them a right to bar the media, who may want to expose that?”

Roberts said that he is not up to speed on First Amendment law or precedents and hasn’t dealt with many First Amendment access cases. And he noted that there exist “some perfectly valid reasons for excluding media,” though he didn’t name them.

“On the other hand, simple disagreement about whether it’s an appropriate issue for the public to see would not strike me as a very compelling governmental interest,” Roberts said.

The Constitution’s framers, he noted, “appreciated the benefits that would come from public awareness. That’s an important principle.”

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