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Reporters Committee opposes Illinois bill that would restrict access to court records, allow prior restraints on journalists

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  1. Court Access

In advance of a May 11 Illinois legislative committee hearing on S.B. 2340, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and other committee members, opposing the legislation, arguing that it “would permit prior restraints on members of the press … and run afoul of the press and public’s well-established right of access to court records.”

The bill, which passed through committee and will likely soon head to a full vote in the state House, includes provisions that raise serious First Amendment concerns: One provision would restrict members of the press or public from publishing information lawfully obtained from law enforcement or court records that contain the name of an adult sexual assault victim or an alleged victim. As the letter notes, “This amounts to a blanket prior restraint that could chill lawful reporting on public records, even in cases where a victim wanted the information to be public.”

Additionally, the legislation would allow courts to issue “gag” orders restricting members of the press from reporting an adult victim’s identity even if it is disclosed in open court.

According to the Reporters Committee’s letter, since 1931, “the Supreme Court has without fail rejected all prior restraints on the press,” recognizing that they are “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” Prior restraints on reporting about court proceedings and records are particularly egregious because “what transpires in the court room is public property.”

S.B. 2340 would also require courts to automatically seal all court records to the extent they contain the names of sex assault victims or alleged victims. The letter explains that these restrictions are not necessary because “courts already can — and do — protect the privacy of sexual assault victims by closing proceedings and redacting records where appropriate,” on a case-by-case basis, as required by the First Amendment.