Supreme Court declines review in a handful of speech cases

Newsgathering | Feature | October 7, 2003

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Supreme Court declines review in a handful of speech cases

  • As part of the mammoth order it releases on the first day of every new term, the Court refused to hear arguments in cases involving news media civil rights suits, the fair report privilege, the right to sell books in public, and an FCC "character" requirement for licensing microbroadcasters.

Oct. 7, 2003 -- The U.S. Supreme Court denied review yesterday of nearly 2,000 cases, including four of particular interest to the news media.

The Supreme Court let stand lower court opinions that upheld the right to sue police officials for buying out a newspaper's press run; the "fair report" privilege in Idaho; and an FCC rule barring "pirate" radio broadcasters from operating licensed stations. The Court also decided to allow a terrorism case to proceed under seal.

The decisions came as part of an 83-page order, which is issued on the first day of every term, the first Monday in October.

The Court's decision not to review the first media case means that a newspaper publisher can sue officials who buy all copies of a newspaper with the intent of stopping its circulation in a particular area. The January 2003 ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) reinstated the civil rights lawsuit of a Maryland weekly newspaper whose Election Day edition was completely bought out by government officials in 1998.

The appellate court said Sheriff Richard Voorhaar, of St. Mary's County, Md., and his subordinates violated the civil rights of St. Mary's Today when they bought more than 1,300 copies of the newspaper the night before an election. The issue contained an unfavorable story about a candidate who was supported by the sheriff. The court said the officials' actions were a "classic example" of government censorship.

Several officers, dressed in casual clothing, went to roughly 40 stores to purchase the papers the night before a local election. (Voorhaar v. Rossignal; Media Counsel: Lee Levine, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, Washington, D.C.)

The Idaho case involved a 1995 story in the Idaho Statesman about a 1950s-era sex scandal. In looking back at the local story, the Statesman reprinted a witness' statement from 1956, which was in a court file, that included an allegation that a boy had engaged in a sexual relationship with his cousin, Fred Uranga, who was named in the statement. Uranga sued in 1997, claiming the story invaded his privacy and caused him emotional distress. The newspaper argued that it had an absolute right to publish information contained in court records, and the suit was dismissed.

The state Supreme Court initially reversed the dismissal in June 2001, saying that witness information in a court file can be inaccurate and the news media should not be immune from liability for printing it. But at the request of the Statesman, the court agreed to reconsider its decision, and in February 2003 it reached the opposite conclusion.

The unanimous court found that there can be no liability for the publication of the contents of a public record, regardless of how old the record is.

With yesterday's action by the U.S. Supreme Court, that decision will stand. For unspecified reasons, Justice Stephen Breyer took no part in consideration of the case. (Uranga v. Federated Publications dba The Idaho Statesman; Media Counsel: Debora K. Kristensen, Givens Pursley LLP, Boise, Idaho)

Another case passed over involved an author who tried to sell his book about a sports team owner outside that team's arena, but was stopped by police. Mark Weinberg wrote "Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption, and the Betrayal of Blackhawk Fans," a 156-page book that he calls a "malicious satire" of Wirtz. His right to sell the book in spite of an anti-peddling ordinance was finally affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.). Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Chicago's petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the appellate decision could allow terrorists targetting Chicago sports events to disguise themselves as vendors. (City of Chicago v. Weinberg)

The Supreme Court also denied review in a case brought by a former microbroadcaster challenging a rule that barred him from receiving an FCC license. The rule required the automatic denial of a new class of microbroadcasting licenses to those who had illegally operated a radio station before the licensing scheme was enacted by the FCC.

Greg Ruggiero had operated a station he called "Steal This Radio," which was run from an apartment building in New York City by using plumbing pipes as an antenna. The station, which reported local news and played music, was shut down in 1999 after a long court battle.

The FCC decided in January 2000 to revoke its complete restriction on microbroadcasters and grant low-power licenses to allow non-commercial stations to operate between 10 and 100 watts of power, but said it would not allow those charged in the past with running an illegal microbroadcast station to receive such a license.

Ruggiero challenged the FCC rule directly to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In February 2002, a three-judge panel found the provision unconstitutional, saying the "character" restriction was a "draconian sanction for broadcast piracy."

But in a rehearing, the full court found in January 2003 that the "character qualification provision is reasonably tailored to satisfying a substantial government interest" and "is in no respect content-based." The Supreme Court's denial of review means that the provision stays in effect. (Ruggiero v. FCC; Media Counsel: Robert Thomas Perry, Center for Constitutional Rights, New York, N.Y.)

The court also granted a terrorism suspect's request to file his petition for review under seal, with a heavily redacted copy made available to the public. The case concerns Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel, an Algerian-born waiter in Florida who was detained for five months without charges after Sept. 11. Bellahouel was released in March 2002, but has since challenged his arrest and the government's ongoing effort to deport him. The case against him was almost unknown, with secret docketing being used at the federal trial and appellate courts. (M.K.B. v. Warden)

-- GL

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