Briefs & Comments

  • March 27, 2015

    The Washington Post sought access to completed jury questionnaires in the criminal trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court released the completed questionnaires, but with names and juror numbers redacted, making it impossible for the public to know which questionnaires corresponded with empaneled jurors. The Washington Post filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Fourth Circuit, seeking an order directing the district court to identify which questionnaires were completed by seated jurors. The Reporters Committee and 22 media organizations filed an amicus brief, arguing that the First Amendment provides a presumptive right of access to juror questionnaires, which are merely a written form of oral voir dire, which is presumptively open to the public. The brief argues that the right of access includes the right to identify which questionnaires match with seated jurors.

  • March 26, 2015

    In October 2014, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered the Pasadena Police Officers Association (PPOA) to release a redacted copy of a report produced by the Office of Independent Review Group for the City of Pasadena that reviewed police department policies in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed teenager. In January, the L.A. Times filed a petition for writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, in California for release of the report. The PPOA quoted from the report liberally in its reply brief, which was filed publicly without redaction, and the brief was distributed to the parties. Nine days later, PPOA sought to replace the unredacted copy of the brief with a redacted version, to file the unredacted version under seal, and to have the parties return their copy of the unredacted brief to the court. The Court of Appeal issued the order. The L.A.

  • March 11, 2015

    Plaintiff Milner sought info from the Department of Defense under FOIA for records relating to the construction of an explosives handling wharf at a naval base. The department cited, among other exemptions, 10 U.S.C. § 130e, a statute that allows an exemption for "critical infrastructure" information but requires that a public interest balancing test. The Reporters Committee submitted an amicus letter to the district court for the Western District of Washington in support of Mr. Milner, arguing that based on the legislative history and text of the statute, as well as the department's own interpretation, it is important that there be an opportunity for the public to provide input on the importance of public access to the information that the government wishes to exempt under the statute.

  • February 27, 2015

    Members of news media made records requests to the Nashville police department for records regarding an alleged rape on the Vanderbilt campus. The trial court granted access to certain categories of records, but the Court of Appeals later held that the records should be exempt. Before the state high court, the Reporters Committee and others submitted an amicus brief arguing that the records act mandates maximum access to government records, including information created by third parties and received by law enforcement agencies, and that the records are not exempt under rule used by the appellate court because it does not bar access to third party records that do not constitute work product. The brief also argued that the state's Victims Bill of Rights does not create an exemption to the act, and that allowing a broad law enforcement exception would have a devastating effect on the ability of the press to report on issues that are of utmost public concern.

  • 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 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.

  • 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.