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Court rejects requests to copy Clinton videotape

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  1. Freedom of Information
Court rejects requests to copy Clinton videotape05/20/96

Court rejects requests to copy Clinton videotape


ARKANSAS–On May 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis (8th Cir.) rejected as untimely a request by a coalition of news media organizations to allow them to copy the videotaped deposition of President Clinton, but urged the federal District Court in Little Rock hearing the criminal case to expedite a decision on access to the tape. The appellate court held that because the lower court had not entered a final order on the issue, appellate review was not appropriate.

The lower court had effectively denied the media immediate access to the videotape by scheduling briefings on the issue into June and twice refusing to reconsider changing the briefing schedule. The media coalition originally requested immediate access to the videotape on May 6, but the judge ordered responses to the request by May 24 and replies by June 7. The media organizations then filed a request for reconsideration, which was denied on May 8.

The President’s testimony was introduced in a criminal conspiracy and fraud trial of the Clintons’ former business partners, James and Susan McDougal, and Jim Guy Tucker, the current governor of Arkansas. The federal District Court judge in Little Rock had put the video testimony under seal in late April. A written transcript of the deposition was released on May 9, the same day the videotape was played in court for the jury.

The media group, which includes the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Capital Cities/American Broadcasting Companies, Turner Broadcasting System, NBC and CBS, argued that immediate access to the videotape was justified by the traditional right of the American public to attend criminal proceedings. The public interest is only heightened, not qualified, by the fact that the deponent is the most powerful public servant in the land, the group asserted.

After the second order denying access to the videotape, the media groups petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals in Little Rock (8th Cir.) for expedited appeal, which was granted May 10.

The Justice Department, representing the President, argued to the appeals court that the public’s right of access has been met by “permitting observation of the testimony in court and access to the transcripts of the testimony.” In addition, release of the tape to the media could lead to “misuse” by the President’s political opponents, according to the Justice Department, and will undermine the delicate balance between different branches of government achieved by having Clinton testify on videotape.

The defendants in the criminal trial argued that the use of the taped testimony might endanger their Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial in future prosecutions.

The media organizations replied that fear of misuse of the videotape in the upcoming presidential campaign does not justify denial of access to a judicial record. (U.S. v. McDougal, et al; Media Counsel: Phillip Anderson, Little Rock)