The Society of Environmental Journalists joined six other journalism groups April 27, 2005, in protesting recently tightened restrictions on journalists working on US military bases - a venue for many environmental stories.
The groups, led by Military Reporters & Editors (MRE), wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urging him to rescind restrictions placed on reporters covering the trial of Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar (accused of killing fellow soldiers with a grenade) at Fort Bragg, N.C. Before being allowed to cover the trial, reporters have been required to sign agreements to some 14 different restrictions - ranging from not interviewing base personnel to being escorted to the bathroom.
Military bases and lands are the settings for many common environmental stories. Forthcoming DoD announcements of base closings and realignments will spark stories on toxic cleanups, land use decisions, energy facility siting, conservation of wetlands, and endangered species - to name only a few. Of roughly 670 million acres of US land owned by the federal government, about 3% are under control of the military.
MRE lawyers have argued that many of the restrictions are illegal or unconstitutional, and MRE has threatened to go to court if they are not rescinded. While some of the legal objections focus on the public's First Amendment right of access to courts martial, others relate to the requirement for signed agreements from reporters as a condition for access to people, places, and information. More and more often, such agreements are being demanded by federal agencies on the environmental beat, ranging from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the Department of Homeland Security (which houses a host of environmental agencies).
The groups acknowledged that the law allows the military to restrict access to court martials for specific reasons under certain procedures. But, they wrote Rumsfeld, "No public hearing was held, no showing was made and no judicial findings were rendered to justify press restrictions of any sort."
Besides MRE and SEJ, journalism groups signing onto the letter included the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, Associated Press Managing Editors, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Under a standing arrangement approved by the SEJ Board of Directors, SEJ can adopt positions on First Amendment issues when they are approved unanimously by the SEJ President (Perry Beeman), the Chairman of SEJ's First Amendment Task Force (Ken Ward Jr.), and the Board Liaison to the Task Force (Robert McClure) - which happened in this case.