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Court declines to gag government speech, press releases

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Court declines to gag government speech, press releases 08/11/97 UTAH --In early June, a federal court in Salt Lake City…

Court declines to gag government speech, press releases

08/11/97

UTAH –In early June, a federal court in Salt Lake City denied a motion seeking a protective order to bar the Federal Trade Commission from issuing press releases about a lawsuit the commission filed against a corporation.

Noting that the Supreme Court has never addressed restraints on government speech in First Amendment terms, federal Magistrate Judge Ronald Boyce stated that nevertheless “there is a valid public interest, and first amendment value, in the government conveyance to the public of information regarding government programs,” and that “prior restraint to prevent a public publication is almost never appropriate.”

Boyce added that government documents, including Congressional reports, presidential news conferences, and reports of executive agencies “provide the basis for the discussion and debate of self-governance issues which have been a touchstone value in first amendment analysis.”

The court further found that because no jury was involved in the case, the corporate defendant, Freecom Communications, failed to show that the restriction on dissemination of information was necessary to ensure a fair trial.

By statute, the FTC has discretion to issue news releases about ongoing cases if it serves the public interest to do so. Freecom claimed that the FTC acted beyond its statutory authority because the agency issued press releases to destroy Freecom’s economic and business functions and not to provide information to the public.

Freecom sought the protective order after the FTC provided press releases to local media, the Utah Consumer Rights Agency, and Dun & Bradstreet, the latter of which, according to Freecom, published erroneous information in its Business Information Report. In addition, the court found no evidence that the government was the source of the misinformation. (Federal Trade Commission v. Freecom Communication, Inc.; Agency Counsel: Jeffrey Gray, Asst. Attorney General, Salt Lake City)