Preferred photographers?

From the Richmond Free Press, Sept. 16, 2011

by Skeeter Faulk

Free Press Editor/Publisher Raymond H. Boone and Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser have a date.

They have agreed to meet next week at the Supreme Court to discuss the court's decades-old policy that gives preferential treatment to white-owned media in photographic coverage.

The Free Press has long protested the policy that bars photographers of black-owned newspapers. The latest example: The banning of prize-winning Free Press Photographer Sandra Sellars from covering the investiture of Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan on Sept. 1.

Ms. Sellars photographed a number of attendees — including former Republican Gov. GeorgeAllen — entering the courthouse in Downtown while a Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer snapped the swearing-in ceremony inside the courtroom.

The Supreme Court, the state's highest court, has steadfastly rejected the Free Press position, stating that limited courtroom space is the reason for the lopsided policy.

The Supreme Court appealed to Mr. Boone to accept photos provided by the court's chosen photographer. But he rejected that offer, stating that acceptance of the offer would keep the discriminatory policy intact and would keep the Free Press from living up to its obligation to be a watchdog of the government in the interest of the people.

Mr. Boone has strongly contended that the court's policy was in violation of the First Amendment — freedom of the press. He further contends that the policy, among other things, promotes monopoly journalism and strips the people of the benefit of different perspectives on public issues.

In a Supreme Court email dated Aug. 31, the chief justice stated that she "would like to meet with you (Mr. Boone) to discuss your concerns." The email response was to an Aug. 30 letter the newspaper executive couriered to the chief justice calling on her to change the uneven policy

On Sept. 8, following individual schedule adjustments, both parties finalized their agreement to meet next week.

Also, in a Sept. 8 letter to the chief justice, Richmond Sen. Henry L. Marsh III backed the Free Press effort to gain photographic access to public activities of the state Supreme Court, particularly investitures of new justices. He provided a copy to the Free Press.

The Free Press "has been placed in a justifiably detestable position," he wrote, of having to accept pool photographs from a competing newspaper, the Times-Dispatch, "with which strained relations are widely known."

The chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee expressed concern that the high court's policy of "granting photographic access only to a major news organization inherently denies minority-owned media equal treatment."

Her urged the chief justice "to detail how this situation can be resolved" before the upcoming investiture of new Justice Cleo Powell on Oct. 21, "so that I, an avid Free Press reader, may have the benefit of photographs and coverage of my dear friend."