Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
A U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., has declined to unseal documents sought by ESPN relating to investigations into professional tennis players, ruling privacy interests outweigh the public’s right to access.
Judge Timothy Corrigan in the Middle District of Florida denied on July 12 ESPN’s motion to unseal certain documents relating to ATP Tour’s investigation into Italian tennis players accused of wagering on the outcome of matches in violation of ATP’s official rulebook. Five players -- Giorgio Galimberti, Alessio Di Mauro, Potito Starace, Daniele Bracciali and Federico Luzzi -- were charged with violations and placed in arbitration proceedings. An arbitrator issued fines and suspensions against each of the players.
The players sued, claiming they were not bound by the ATP rulebook and were victims of “selective enforcement.” The district court granted summary judgment in favor of ATP on March 1, ruling that the arbitration proceedings complied with the law and the players should have raised their arguments through or at the time of the arbitration proceedings and not in a later court proceeding.
During the court case, the tennis players filed a number of confidential documents under seal supporting their position of “selective enforcement” of ATP’s anti-wagering rules. The documents concerned whether other professional tennis players, not involved in the litigation, may have been involved in violations. Some of these documents were attached to the plaintiffs' filings in opposition to ATP's motion for summary judgment.
ESPN moved to unseal the records on common law and First Amendment grounds, arguing a presumptive right of public access to court documents exists and that that right outweighs any benefits of keeping the documents sealed.
ATP argued that tennis players who were not involved in the investigations “are likely to be injured” if the requested documents go public without giving them an opportunity to respond. ESPN maintained there is a presumptive public access, especially because the players are public figures.
The court found the privacy interests of the tennis players named in the sealed documents but not involved in the disputes outweigh any public interest in the matter.
“While there does not appear to be any 'smoking gun' documents involving these players, they do appear to disclose information concerning an ATP wagering investigation which contains the names of a number of professional tennis players,” Corrigan said. “To release this gratuitously filed and unvarnished data in a circumstance in which the named players would have no opportunity to be heard or to respond, would be unfair to the players and would serve little or no public or First Amendment purpose.”
Jennifer Mansfield, a media attorney from Holland & Knight, LLP in Florida representing ESPN, said she believes there is a presumptive right of access to court filings.
“Any document submitted to a court by a party, because of our open judicial system, should be open unless the court analyzes the document and makes findings under prevailing constitutional standards for excluding them,” Mansfield said.
The district court also acknowledged in its July 12 ruling that there is a split of authority nationally on what documents filed in court proceedings are entitled to presumption of access. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) has ruled that the public has a presumptive right to access any document physically filed with the court and attached to a substantive motion, Corrigan said. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York (2nd Cir.) has ruled that the presumptive right of access is narrower, saying it only applies to submitted documents that are relevant and considered in the adjudication process.
Corrigan said the sealed documents "had nothing to do" with the issue that he granted summary judgment on. Corrigan said the federal appellate court with jurisdiction in Florida, the Eleventh Circuit, has not weighed in on the public's presumptive access to submitted documents that played no role in the outcome of a court decision and he would assume there was at least a limited right of access to the sealed documents. He then focused the bulk of his analysis on the balancing test of privacy rights vs. public interest.
Corrigan added, in a footnote, that the court did consider a limited amount of sealed material in its summary judgment, which ESPN could move to unseal by Aug. 15. Mansfield said ESPN has not decided whether to pursue the issue further.