Department of Justice Civil Rights Division senior trial attorney Rachel Hranitzky told a local Louisiana reporter that he could not quote statements she made at a public hearing regarding the the New Iberia Fire Department. Even worse, according to the local reporter, Hranitzky "grew belligerent and threatening" and threatened to eject the reporter from the PUBLIC meeting if he did not follow her orders:
“[The Department of Justice] can call your editors and publisher at the paper, and trust me, you don’t want to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side,” Hranitzky reportedly said.Hranitzky cited some unknown and previously unheard of Justice Department internal "rule" that prevented attorneys from being quoted even when they made public statements. Think about implications of a rule prohibiting the press from reporting on what a Justice Department attorney says during his or her official duties in public. It is bad enough that the Fourth Estate kowtows to the Executive branch by previewing national security stories and too often "softens" stories in response to Executive branch fears. Now a Justice Department attorney says reporters can't even publish public statements. Lucy Dalglish of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press is rightfully concerned about the First Amendment implications.
“We are gravely concerned over any internal practice or policy of preventing journalists from recording or quoting statements made by DOJ officials,” Dalglish wrote in a letter to the Justice Department about the incident. “Restricting the public’s right to report on federal officials’ actions at public meetings clearly conflicts with the mandates of the First Amendment and state open government laws.”
The Reporter's Committee has not received a response to their inquiry:
“I think the reason we haven’t heard back from them yet is because they know it’s bogus,” says Dalglish. “My hunch is that they’re still trying to figure out what happened.”I share Dalglish's skepticism. Aside from the fact that such a Justice Department rule would fly in the face of the First Amendment and that no one has ever heard of such a rule, the Justice Department has plenty of internal rules that it regularly flouts. For example, the Justice Department's internal guidelines mandate that the Justice Department only subpoena reporters when absolutely necessary, but that didn't stop the Justice Department from thrice subpoenaing New York Times reporter Jim Risen, despite the fact that the government already suspected (and charged under the Espionage Act) Jeffery Sterling with being Risen's source.
As outrageous as Hranitzky's assertions sound, they speak a larger, dangerous, and chilling "only approved leaks" culture at the Justice Department under the Obama administration.
“[the local reporter] said that after the meeting Hranitzky told him she had been quoted in the past and gotten in trouble with the department.[Hranitzky] said that there are ’special rules’ by which attorneys are quoted,” [the local reporter] said in an interview with Main Justice. “Afterwards she told me the Department of Justice keeps a short leash on how their attorneys are quoted and she could get in big trouble if she were quoted in a newspaper.”(She may have been talking about this).
Between the recent "leak hysteria" sweeping Washington and the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers, Hranitzky's frantic response to the possibility of a reporter quoting her public statements demonstrates just how scared line attorneys at the Justice Department -- and probably countless other federal workers -- are about being quoted in the press. Instead of thinking about her worthwhile work -- in this case, preventing discriminatory hiring practices -- Hranitzky appeared more worried about the professional consequences for her if the press published her public statements.
I've long warned that the Obama administration's crackdown whistleblowers has an immeasurably large chilling effect on potential whistleblowers and is a back door way of going after journalists and creating an Official Secrets Act. This is another dangerous result of the Obama administration's "only approved leaks" culture: instead of doing their jobs, employees are worried about keeping their jobs if they are too transparent.