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Access to high-profile obscenity trial partially blocked

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The federal district court in the District of Columbia is hearing its first obscenity case in over 20 years, but…

The federal district court in the District of Columbia is hearing its first obscenity case in over 20 years, but members of the press and public are being denied access to critical portions of the trial process.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon is presiding over the trial of adult film producer and website owner John Stagliano and two of his companies. Stagliano is facing up to 32 years in prison for distributing movies that are allegedly obscene, meaning that they have no artistic or scientific value. FBI agents in the D.C. area had purchased and downloaded videos from Stagliano’s website, thereby allowing the Department of Justice to prosecute Stagliano in D.C. federal court.

Portions of the trial proceedings have been sealed from the start. Judge Leon conducted the jury selection process, also known as voir dire, in secret. Jury selection is typically an open proceeding that can be attended by any member of the public, unless the judge makes specific findings on the record that there is a “compelling interest” in closing a courtroom and that the closure is “narrowly tailored” to meet that interest.

The judge has also refused to allow the public or the press to see completed juror questionnaires, or even a blank copy of the jury questionnaire that all jurors fill out, stating that the questionnaire is sensitive.

Reporters typically use jury questionnaires to conduct investigations into whether the juror process and justice system are working properly. For example, reporters might compare answers given on questionnaires with answers given to the court during voir dire to see if jurors are consistent in their responses or for evidence of juror bias that could impact the outcome of the case.

Even in cases where there is a legitimate privacy interest in protecting juror responses on questionnaires, a court can still allow public access to questionnaires by simply redacting the sensitive material, instead of issuing a blanket order denying access to all materials.  Redaction of only the material that is considered sensitive would also ensure that a court meets the requirement that closure be "narrowly tailored."

The public and press also had difficulty seeing and hearing the prosecution’s evidence, which consisted of a 50-minute clip of one of Stagliano’s movies.  Television monitors were set up to face the jurors from opposite sides of the jury box and headsets were provided to all jurors. 

Judge Leon only provided two headsets for use by members of the press.  The ability to see one of the television monitors depended upon where one was sitting in the courtroom. 

Although the law on the issue is somewhat sparse, courts have found that evidence presented in an open courtroom should be accessible to members of the public.  The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in the 1947 case of Craig v. Harney that “[w]hat transpires in the courtroom is public property.”

At least one journalist has written a letter to the court, protesting the restrictions on access.