The National American Civil Liberties Union announced it has filed a lawsuit challenging the closure to the press and public of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The closure has been described as the military's attempt to diminish the adverse publicity that would accompany news coverage of war fatalities returning from the Middle East.

"Denying the public and media the right to witness and record the arrival of America's dead is intended to prevent the American people from seeing graphic visuals and hearing emotional descriptions of the effects of the war," said Kate Martin, director of the ACLU's National Security Litigation Project. "The government clearly fears the impact that such news will have on public opinion about the war in this country."According to the ACLU, the public and press have been allowed on the Dover base to witness the arrival of U.S. soldiers who died overseas in defense of their country.

Base policy was changed after Operation Desert Storm began, prompting the ACLU to file suit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on behalf of several photographers and other representatives of the news media, several veterans groups and the Military Families Support Network.

The suit seeks to overturn the military's policy and to win an immediate order from the court to open the base. The ACLU alleges the Defense Department's restrictions violate the First Amendment rights to freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Dover is the East Coast operating base for military C-5 transport aircraft and is the largest port mortuary operated by the Defense Department. The base is capable of preparing and putting into caskets up to 100 bodies per day. The mortuary also contains storage space for up to 1,000 remains, according to an Air Force fact sheet as relayed in an ACLU news release.

The press and public were present at Dover to view the 237 caskets containing the bodies of the U.S. Marines killed in a terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983. They were also present to record the return of the bodies of service men and women killed in the Panama invasion in December 1989, according to the ACLU.

"The only objective of the Defense Department's new policy is to limit news coverage and other speech that the government considers undesirable and to control and manipulate American public opinion," Martin said.

The ACLU of Utah fully supports the lawsuit and considers the military's position to be manipulative and cynical censorship, said Executive Director Michele A. Parish.