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Colorado high court upholds prior restraint in Bryant case

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    News Media Update         COLORADO         Prior Restraints    

Colorado high court upholds prior restraint in Bryant case

  • Citing the accuser’s privacy interests, the Colorado Supreme Court barred the press from reporting details from mistakenly released transcripts of a closed hearing.

July 19, 2004 — In a rare case upholding a prior restraint on the press, the Colorado Supreme Court narrowly ruled today that the news media may not publish details from transcripts of a closed-door hearing in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.

By a 4-3 vote, the court upheld District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle’s order threatening news organizations with contempt of court if they published information from the mistakenly released transcripts.

The court conceded that Ruckriegle’s order amounted to a prior restraint on the free press, which is presumed to be unconstitutional. But the majority said the order was justified by the facts and context of the case.

“The state has an interest of the highest order in this case in providing a confidential evidentiary proceeding under the rape shield statute,” the court ruled. “[S]uch hearings protect the victims’ privacy, encourage victims to report sexual assault, and further the prosecution and deterrence of sexual assault.”

Christopher Beall, an attorney for the seven news organizations that received the transcripts in error, said the groups are “disappointed” in the ruling and are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The organizations that received the transcripts are The Associated Press, CBS, The Denver Post , ESPN, Fox News, the Los Angeles Times and Warner Brothers Television.

The court did not completely uphold Ruckriegle’s order. It overturned Ruckriegle’s directive to news organizations to destroy their copies of the transcripts, and instructed him to determine whether portions of the transcripts should be released to the public on a redacted basis.

Beall said a compromise involving redacted transcripts was unlikely to alleviate the media’s concerns. “We feel that there is no basis for a prior restraint on any of the information in the transcripts,” he said.

The dispute began when a court clerk mistakenly e-mailed transcripts of the closed, two-day hearing to the seven news outlets. The hearing, held June 21 and 22, concerned the admissibility of evidence about the accuser’s sex life and money she had received from the state’s victim-compensation program.

After learning of the mistake, Ruckriegle ordered the news organizations not to publish any information from the transcripts.

The news organizations complied with the order, but immediately challenged it as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

(Colorado v. Bryant, Media Counsel: Thomas B. Kelley and Christopher P. Beall, Faegre & Benson, Denver) JM

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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