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August 20, 2008
Colonial Beach Mayor tramples reporter?s first amendment rights, Tactics are tantamount to prior restraint
COLONIAL BEACH, Virginia (STPNS) -- Shortly after noon on Aug. 15, Journal reporter Anne Congdon was asked to vacate the premises of the Colonial Beach Town Hall.
While the reporter was researching documents to provide historical background data for several stories for the Journal Press, Mayor Frederick C. (Fred) Rummage invited her into his office. And then he somewhat irreverently invited her to vacate the premises.
The public official that recently won office on a platform focusing on open and transparent government was disturbed that Congdon was reviewing public records.
It seems that the mayor took particular umbrage to the fact that a ?journalist? was exercising her First Amendment rights.
And in a telephone conversation with me on Aug. 15, Rummage accused her of ?moving around, lurking, and looking? for no other reason than to find out about internal operations.
Congdon is currently serving on the town school board and several years ago held a seat on the town council for two years. To even a casual observer, had she wanted, those positions alone would give her ample opportunity for an inside glimpse into the internal workings of the local government.
The mayor seemed annoyed and somewhat baffled that a reporter would spend six hours over the course of several days sitting in the town hall to do research and claimed she ?was camping out.?
Any reporter worth their salt will spend as much as three hours of research and study of an issue for every hour spent writing. Most people know that the majority of work for any project takes place in the preparation, not the final product; a fact to which any good professor or any good cook could easily testify.
For someone who is so concerned that a reporter might want a better understanding of government, the mayor seems to be somewhat confused about the workings of the federal and state government at its most fundamental level.
The First Amendment protects all citizens? right to free speech and includes aspects of FOIA that provide for open and free access to the review of public records.
Rummage claims to be re-writing the town?s rules for addressing FOIA issues and said they would be available in a few days, and the same regulations that apply to reporters would apply to all citizens. However, according to Congdon, the town council just promulgated a new set of FOIA regulations at a recent meeting.
The most disturbing part of the mayor?s actions is that he is now requiring Congdon to submit written FOIA requests for copies of records, as opposed to providing a place to review records on site as required by law.
But sunshine laws under the First Amendment do not allow for the prohibition of on-site access, except in extremely limited cases. However the law does provide for the prosecution of public bodies that inhibit any citizen?s access.
Chapter 37 of Title 2 of Virginia?s Administration of Government addresses the Freedom of Information Act within the commonwealth.
Subchapter 2.2-3714 allows the court to impose a fine if they find that a public body willfully and knowingly violated the law. That fine can be imposed upon the member of the public body in his individual capacity in an amount from $250 to $1,000. And subsequent violations mandate a fine of $1,000 up to $2,500.
Although the mayor says his FOIA regulations will apply to every citizen, to even a casual observer his ire seems to be directed at Congdon and the Fourth Estate.
Rummage began the week by complaining to The Journal publisher about an article Congdon wrote concerning a local drug bust and requested that she be removed from her beat. While publisher Ruth Herrink did not cave to the mayor?s demand, by week?s end, the mayor had barred the same reporter?s access to public records.
With his focus aimed squarely at the local press, the mayor?s actions are beginning to reek of prior restraint. And when prior restraint is even vaguely implied, every journalist and every citizen should be very concerned about what officials don?t want revealed.
There is an old adage that said ?the freedom of the press belongs to he who owns the press.? But the mayor seems to be ignorant of the fact that with the internet and other modern technology at our fingertips, everyone owns a press.
Given this evolving medium, every official should welcome journalists with open arms and embrace the opportunity to put forth their ideas, plans, and policies.
But they should take note that members of the Fourth Estate stand ever vigilant to ensure that the United States does not fall prey to unethical government bodies that would seek to control our open access to information. That holds true in Colonial Beach.
Marty van Duyne is a free lance journalist and regular contributor to The Journal Press, Inc.
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