A California state appellate court has ordered a judge to rescind her order banning a newspaper from publishing photographs taken of a murder defendant, unless she can demonstrate a compelling reason why the pictures should not be printed.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt issued the order last week to Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib. Seib had taken multiple images of defendant Alberd Tersargyan, who is on trial for killing a Hollywood woman with whom he was allegedly infatuated. Merritt had previously granted Seib's request to take photographs during the trial.
After a defense lawyer objected to the photographs during the hearing last week, however, Merritt ordered Seib to stop. Despite arguments by an attorney representing the newspaper that the prior restraint order violated the First Amendment, Merritt stated that she was concerned that the ability of witnesses to identify a suspect in the case would interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial.
In response, the California Court of Appeal issued a terse order stating that Merritt either needed to reverse her prior restraint order or show cause as to why the order should stand. The appeals court cited several prominent First Amendment cases that resulted in rulings that prior restraints on publication were unconstitutional, including the well-known 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case of Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart.
Oral arguments on the matter were heard today. According to the appellate court, the decision will be deferred until both sides have the opportunity to submit additional supporting documents, which should occur within the next few weeks.