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Court restrains newspaper from reporting on settlement agreement

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ARIZONA--A Tucson judge in mid-September issued a temporary order forbidding The Arizona Daily Star to publish details of a settlement…

ARIZONA–A Tucson judge in mid-September issued a temporary order forbidding The Arizona Daily Star to publish details of a settlement agreement between the district and a longtime employee who had made allegations of sexual harassment. After the trial court judge lifted his order, an appellate court stayed that order for an additional three days.

Altogether, the paper was restrained from publishing the information for 12 days.

The Tucson Unified School District, which sought the temporary restraining order, argued that some of the records contained private attorney-client communications. According to counsel for the district, “These are not just bland attorney-client memos. . . . These are documents that contain very sensitive information and very sensitive allegations.” The newspaper argued that the court’s order was an unlawful prior restraint and violates the First Amendment.

In his September 16 decision to grant the temporary restraining order, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee questioned whether any constitutional rights outweigh the attorney-client privilege. The Star appealed the grant of the order to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

The trial court held a hearing on September 24 to determine whether to extend its order. The court denied the school district’s request for a permanent injunction, finding that there was little likelihood that the district would succeed on the merits of the Complaint.

On September 25, the school district was granted a stay from the Arizona Court of Appeals. Three days later, the appellate court terminated the stay, declining to accept jurisdiction of the district’s petition for special action.

The newspaper then published comments from a lawyer for the district describing how the district had mishandled the sexual harassment complaint.

In 1997, the school board approved a confidential settlement agreement with an employee who had made allegations of sexual harassment. The details of the settlement agreement were unknown until summer 1998, when The Star received copies of the records anonymously in the mail. After learning that a Star reporter was asking district officials questions about the settlement, the district sued the newspaper for conversion, invasion of privacy, declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief. The district also sought to prevent the newspaper from publishing any story based on the records. (Tucson Unified School District No. 1 of Pima County v. Tully; Media Counsel: Phillip Higdon, Tucson)