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Completely sealed New York Supreme Court case challenges public’s right of access

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  1. Court Access

Anonymous v. Anonymous reportedly involves legal action to compel a journalist to reveal a confidential source

Editor’s Note: The judge ruled to unseal this case in its entirety on March 5, 2019. He also recognized Teri Buhl as a professional journalist and dismissed the petition against her that sought the identity of her source.

Staff attorney Sarah Matthews said, “This is an important win because it confirms that the New York shield law applies to freelance journalists like Teri Buhl, who self-publish on their own news sites. Unsealing this case was particularly important because it involved an attempt to force a journalist to reveal her source.”

The public has a presumed right of access to judicial proceedings, but an entirely sealed case before New York’s trial-level court involving investigative journalist Teri Buhl is challenging that notion.

According to Buhl’s online news site, Smashmouth Investigative Journalism, the subject of one of Buhl’s investigative stories is reportedly trying to force her to reveal her confidential source in this sealed case.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Jan. 28, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued the court should unseal the case and continue proceedings in open court.

Since the entire case is sealed, there aren’t any records available to the public. Even the names of those involved are not entirely clear. As of right now, the case is listed as Anonymous v. Anonymous, even though the public docket shows proof of service documents on a number of people and entities (including Buhl) disclosing their involvement in the case.

In an attempt to fight the efforts to seal the case and protect herself and her source, Buhl has hired an attorney with financial support from the Press Freedom Defense Fund.

The need for transparency in these proceedings is one of the reasons the Reporters Committee is urging the court to unseal the court records and hold the remaining hearings in open court. Attempts to compel a journalist to reveal her sources shouldn’t be hidden from the public, Reporters Committee attorneys argue.

“Public access to court records and proceedings is a bedrock principle of the American court system and one of the most fundamental rights in our democracy,” attorneys from the Reporters Committee stated in their brief.

Reporters Committee attorneys also questioned the reasons for sealing the entire case, noting that “it is highly doubtful that any ‘compelling circumstances’ justify litigating any portion of this case in private, even temporarily.”

The Reporters Committee also argued that New York’s shield law — which protects professional journalists from being forced to disclose their confidential sources or non-confidential, unpublished information — should apply to Buhl.

“The shield law safeguards journalists’ ability to assure sources that their confidentiality will be maintained,” Reporters Committee attorneys stated in the brief.

Forcing journalists to reveal anonymous sources could discourage sources from coming forward in the future and prevent important information from reaching the public.

A hearing scheduled for March 5 could determine whether the case moves forward in open court, and the Reporters Committee hopes to present an oral argument defending the shield law and unsealing of records at that time.

View the full brief.

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