Briefs & Comments

  • February 20, 2015

    Donald Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards and securities fraud, among other things, stemming from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 people. Immediately following the indictment, a federal judge ordered the parties, attorneys, witnesses, families of victims and others from making any statements to the media, and restricted all access to filings in the case. A coalition of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, and the Charleston Gazette, intervened to overturn the restrictive orders, but the judge denied the request and found that news coverage was sufficiently likely to prejudice Blankenship’s right to a fair trial. The media intervenors appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

  • February 17, 2015

    Twitter is suing the Department of Justice in the Northern District of California, contending that restrictions on disclosing the number of FISA requests and national security letters it receives are unconstitutional prior restraints on its speech. Five U.S. communications providers filed motions in 2013 to allow them to publish aggregate data about FISA orders and national security letters they had received. These five companies — Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo!, and LinkedIn — entered into a settlement with the Department of Justice allowing for limited disclosures. Twitter took issue with the fact that providers who have never received a NSL or FISA order are apparently forbidden to reveal that fact. The government argued that the district court should dismiss the case, contending that the FISA Court is a more appropriate venue.

  • February 17, 2015

    Media plaintiffs, prisoners' rights groups, and prisoners sued the State of Pennsylvania Attorney General in the Middle District of Pennsylvania over the constitutionality of the Revictimization Relief Act, a law that put restraints on the conduct and speech of convicted prisoners that caused "mental anguish" in the minds of their victims and those close to the victims. Plaintiffs sued for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. The Reporters Committee and three other amici filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs. The brief argued that the Act's restriction on speech is an unconstitutionally vague prior restraint on a limitless range of speech, including matters of public interest.

  • February 17, 2015

    The Reporters Committee filed comments regarding the proposed amendment to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41 concerning "remote access" searches of electronic media. The proposed amendment to Rule 41 offers insufficient safeguards for newsgathering and other First Amendment-protected activity. Remote-access searches of journalists’ computers can reveal a variety of confidential information, including lists of contacts, work product, and reporter-source communications. These searches would violate the Privacy Protection Act and the First and Fourth Amendments. The proposed amendment offers insufficient protection to journalists who use encryption and anonymity tools.

  • February 11, 2015

    The Virginia Legislature is considering a bill that would exempt information on the drugs used in executions, as well as the pharmacies that produce them and any investigations into those pharmacies, from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The Reporters Committee argued that this information should not be kept from the public, especially in light of the concerns that have been raised with regards to the sources of execution drugs and the numerous recent botched executions around the nation.

  • February 10, 2015

    The ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are suing the County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, city and county of Los Angeles, and the L.A. Police Department for release of automatic license plate recognition system records. The trial court determined that all such records are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act as investigatory records. The Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief arguing that the trial court's reading of the investigatory records exemption was overbroad and erroneous and emphasized the importance to the press of access to police records.

  • February 2, 2015

    In connection with a civil lawsuit filed after an accident at a veteran's parade, the Atlanta FOX 5 television station broadcast a series of news reports detailing the police investigation and indictment of the plaintiff, Shane Lardner, for lying about having a Purple Heart. Ladner sued for defamation, and FOX 5 attempted to use the Georgia anti-SLAPP law to have the suit dismissed. The trial court ruled that the anti-SLAPP law was inapplicable because the news reports did not qualify as statements "made in connection with" an official proceeding and because they were "sensationalistic." The Reporters Committee wrote an amicus brief supporting FOX 5's petition for review to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court applied an unduly narrow interpretation of the anti-SLAPP statute, which should cover media reports discussing lawsuits.

  • January 29, 2015

    In response to a request under the Texas Public Information Act for use-of-force policies, the City of Victoria, Texas, asked the Attorney General whether it must disclose the records or whether they are exempt because they would interfere with law enforcement activities. The City’s reasoning is not only insufficient to warrant withholding the requested records, but also relies on the incorrect assertion that their release would impede law enforcement activity. The citizens of Texas have a paramount interest in information concerning the use of force, including deadly force, by law enforcement officers.

  • January 27, 2015

    Civil Beat, published by Peer News LLC, is an investigative and watchdog journalism outlet focused on public affairs reporting in Hawaii. Civil Beat was denied a request for the names and disciplinary information of 12 Honolulu Police Department officers who were allegedly suspended but not discharged. When Peer News went to court, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) intervened in the suit in support of the HPD. The trial court ordered that the records be released. In an appeal brought by SHOPO, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief arguing that state law recognizes that the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public's interests is to open up government records to scrutiny.

  • January 16, 2015

    The Detroit Free Press sued the DOJ for the release of mugshots taken by the U.S. Marshals Service under the Freedom of Information Act. The trial court held for DFP, and the government appealed to the 6th Circuit. Our brief argues that neither constitutional nor common law recognizes a privacy interest in photographs of persons who have been arrested and indicted, and appeared in open court, specifically noting that mugshots are open or presumably open to the public under the laws of at least 40 states. The brief also argues that even if there is a privacy interest in mugshots, it is outweighed by the public interest in their disclosure.

  • January 15, 2015

    A libel plaintiff suing a local FOX station in Chicago sought to obtain a news producer's communications with the FOX in-house attorney. FOX argued that those communications should not have to be released because of the attorney-client privilege. The plaintiff argued that such a privilege is not recognized in Illinois. The Reporters Committee argued that protection of communications between news reporters and producers and their in-house counsel is essential to preserving the integrity of confidential pre-publication legal advice. If neither reporters nor lawyers can trust in that confidentiality, reporters may not feel comfortable being completely open with the lawyer, who in turn cannot provide the best advice. Furthermore, the brief points out that it is impractical to expect that counsel will always communicate only with the most powerful executives at the news organization and not with producers.

  • December 12, 2014

    Photographer Paul Raef was prosecuted under California Vehicle Code 40008, basically an anti-paparazzi law that imposes additional penalties on violators of generally applicable reckless driving laws when those violators are driving with the intent to gather news for commercial purposes. After the Court of Appeals refused to hear Raef's appeal, Raef filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court, which the Reporters Committee supported with an amicus letter brief.

    The Reporters Committee and seven other groups argued that the law imposes an additional punishment for driving while being a journalist and threatens the First Amendment right of newsgathering. It punishes both paparazzi and members of the mainstream media who are traveling with the intent of gathering news. The law could be used to harass journalists.

  • December 5, 2014

    Members of the Olympia Food Co-Op sued members of the co-op's board of directors for adopting a boycott of Israeli products. The board successfully had the suit dismissed under the state's anti-SLAPP law. On appeal, the libel plaintiffs are asking the Washington Supreme Court to rule that the Washington anti-SLAPP statute is unconstitutional. The Reporters Committee argued that the Washington anti-SLAPP statute, like the many anti-SLAPP laws around the country that have been held to be constitutional, protects journalists from protracted legal battles over meritless lawsuits that are designed to chill speech. The law does not violate the plaintiffs' rights to petition or of access to the courts, particularly because there is no right to file a frivolous suit, which is what the statute is intended to protect against.

  • December 4, 2014

    The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the attorney general of Idaho over Idaho's "ag gag" law, which imposes penalties for "agricultural production interference," in essence recording images and sounds on the property of agricultural production facilities. It punishes people who investigate such facilities' cruelty to animals and other unsafe food practices. In supporting the plaintiff's push for a decision in their favor before a federal district court, the Reporters Committee argued that the Idaho law infringes on First Amendment rights of people who want to inform the public about important matters such as food safety. It fails to survive strict scrutiny because it does not further the government's interest in promoting food safety and is not narrowly tailored.

  • December 2, 2014

    A Connecticut Superior Court judge in the juvenile division, overseeing a custody dispute, issued a prior restraint order against the Connecticut Law Tribune, prohibiting a reporter from publishing information he obtained while in the courtroom and from a court document that had been posted publicly on the court website. The judge also sealed transcripts and his orders and memorandum justifying the prior restraint. The Connecticut Law Tribune appealed, and the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal. The Reporters Committee and 48 media companies filed a motion to appear as amici curiae, arguing that the court violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments when it issued an order barring publication of information lawfully obtained from a court document posted on the court's own public website. We argued that there is a heavy presumption against prior restraints generally, and specifically under the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Oklahoma Publishing Co. v.