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 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 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 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.

  • 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.

  • November 20, 2014

    An appeal of an adverse determination under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (“DC FOIA”), by the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”), submitted on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The Reporters Committee sought footage from police body cameras as the D.C. police began a pilot program to test such a system.

  • November 17, 2014

    A panel of Eleventh Circuit judges held that the Fourth Amendment applies to requests for historical cell site location information. Prosecutors obtained over two months' worth of historical location information from a cell phone provider using a court order issued under the Stored Communications Act, which permits a court to order a service provider to turn over subscriber records but does not require a finding of probable cause that a crime has been committed. The Eleventh Circuit granted rehearing en banc, and the Reporters Committee filed a brief in support of the defendant's position. The Fourth Amendment question in the case, the Reporters Committee argued, is inextricably linked to First Amendment questions. Warrantless acquisition of cell phone location data is concerning because a record of where one goes, and for how long, lays bare the processes of investigative reporting and threatens to reveal confidential sources and methods.

  • November 7, 2014

    Courthouse News Service (CNS) filed a federal lawsuit against a California state superior court for delaying access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints for days or weeks. CNS argued that the First Amendment provides a right of access to civil complaints that attaches immediately upon filing, and its reporters should be able to inspect newly filed civil complaints the day they are filed. A federal district court granted the defendant-court's motion to dismiss, finding that the type of access requested was not required under the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee and 25 other media organizations argued that a First Amendment right of access attaches to civil complaints when they are filed. The brief argued that the public has a right to know what matters are occupying space on court dockets and consuming public resources, and that complaints reveal a wealth of information about how citizens use the judicial branch.

  • November 6, 2014

    The Reporters Committee led a media coalition protesting a Seattle FBI effort to use a fake Associated Press news article and web site to ensnare a criminal suspect. The protest letter was submitted to the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI.

  • November 3, 2014

    The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by a national coalition of media organizations, has filed comments on proposed Department of Defense Freedom of Information Act regulations.

  • November 3, 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. 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. The amicus coalition submitted a letter brief to the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Four, asking for the court to grant Raef's petition for transfer or, in the alternative, for a writ of mandamus. The court denied Raef's petition for transfer and for writ of mandamus.

  • October 24, 2014

    A 19-year-old American, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, was arrested as he tried to fly from the United States to Turkey (ultimately to go to Iraq or Syria), and he was charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorist organizations. The government moved to have Khan's detention hearing closed to the public, because privacy interests of third-party minors would be implicated. The government filed its motion and brief under seal, so the precise justification to close the hearing was unknown. The Reporters Committee wrote a letter to express concern about closing the detention hearing, arguing that there is a well-established First Amendment right of access to preliminary proceedings in criminal cases, which may only be overcome by an overriding interest based on findings that closure was essential to preserve higher values and was narrowly tailored to serve that interest.