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Court abandons background checks for reporters at murder trial

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Feb 14, 2001    

Court abandons background checks for reporters at murder trial

  • Less than one week after nearly 50 reporters submitted to criminal records check, the Mariposa County court recanted and will return the profiles to reporters.

Opposition from media organizations and a state First Amendment advocacy group prompted a California court to reverse its policy on Feb. 12 that called for criminal background checks as a prerequisite to cover a murder trial. The court’s decision came less than one week after 48 reporters complied with the measure in order to attend an upcoming triple-murder trial.

In dropping its policy, the Mariposa Superior Court validated the First Amendment concerns first brought up on Feb. 8, when an Associated Press reporter refused to submit the required fingerprints. Other organizations, including the California First Amendment Coalition, then opposed the policy, arguing that the criminal background check of reporters was unconstitutional because the practice violated the public’s right to attend a criminal trial.

Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Berest informed the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that the court rescinded the policy and referred questions to the Mariposa County sheriff’s office. The sheriff will hold the completed reports from the background checks until reporters come to collect their own.

In early January, the court requested fingerprints from all reporters who applied for press passes to the murder trial of Cary Stayner. The court reasoned the high-profile trial in a small county warranted stringent security measures. Stayner, accused in state court of murdering three tourists outside of Yosemite National Park in 1999, is already serving a federal life sentence for one of the Yosemite murders.

Court officials mistakenly claimed they followed the same procedure used in Stayner’s federal trial in ordering the reporters to complete the background checks.

(California v. Stayner) ML

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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