EDITORIAL

AG's subpoenas of reporter's notes a gross intrusion

The Detroit News

It's hard to imagine a greater insult to the First Amendment than to have the government attempt to intimidate a reporter gathering information that may expose government abuses. The Founders included freedom of the press in the Constitution for the specific reason of enabling independent watchdogs of the institutions of power.

That's why the attempt by the attorney general's office to seize the notes of reporters looking into sexual assaults of juvenile inmates in the state's prison system is so egregious. Though Attorney General Bill Schuette quickly revoked the subpoenas when a firestorm of criticism erupted, it should have never happened.

His office should have exercised better judgment and certainly should have deferred on First Amendment grounds if there were questions about the propriety of trying to grab the notes, even before a story had been written.

Schuette's press secretary Andrea Bitely told The News in an email the attorney general can't possibly be aware of all his office's proceedings, with more than 40,000 open cases at any given time.

That's a poor cop-out. If Schuette has people in his office who think it's OK to intimidate reporters, he's got serious staffing issues.

One of the reporters, Huffington Post's Dana Liebelson, was handed a subpoena in the middle of an interview. The same agent was at a different prison the next day to issue a second subpoena. That amounts to harassment.

The subpoenas suggest desperation on the state's part regarding reports of widespread sexual abuse of juvenile inmates who are unwisely being held in adult prisons.

Chilling testimony is coming out in depositions stemming from a class-action lawsuit by youthful convicts who say they have been made virtual sex slaves in prison.

An article in the Atlantic magazine last month conveyed stories of rape, coercion and other sexual abuse that make the stomach turn. Worse, the lawsuit also alleges Corrections Department employees have abused prisoners.

If the allegations are true, Michigan is out of compliance with federal law and at risk of a huge legal payout.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act passed in 2003 requires inmates under 18 be separated from older convicts, among other stipulations. Since 2004, the state has received federal money to enact the requirements of the law.

The Department of Corrections argues it has trained personnel and incoming inmates on how to avoid sexual assault in prison, and that the department "was largely doing it anyway" over the past few years.

The blatant attempt by the attorney general's office to keep the stories from becoming more widely public suggests the state has something to hide.

Rather than suppress coverage of a possibly ugly situation, the state should turn its full attention to fixing the problem.