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Federal court rejects proposed gag rule

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   RHODE ISLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Dec. 14, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   RHODE ISLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Dec. 14, 2005


Federal court rejects proposed gag rule

  • A proposal to gag discussions of pending cases in U.S. District Court by parties involved and court employees was discarded by the court.

Dec. 14, 2005  ·   A proposed rule that would have barred federal court employees, litigants, their attorneys and others from disclosing nonpublic information about pending cases in U.S. District Court in Providence, R.I., has been rejected as redundant by the court.

The court deleted the draft rule because it was “worded too broadly and could be construed in a manner that was not intended,” Chief Judge Ernest C. Torres explained in a notice posted on the Court’s Web site Monday. Current statutes, rules, court orders, or Rules of Professional Responsibility already prohibit the release of the information that the court was concerned about, according to the notice, so “attorneys, parties and others already would be on notice that the disclosure of such information was prohibited.”

Proposed Local Rule 110 would have forbid any attorney, party, court employee, intern, court security officer, U.S. marshal or deputy U.S. marshal from disclosing or disseminating “to any unauthorized person information relating to any pending case that is not a part of the public record” without a judge’s permission. The proposed gag was part of a set of proposed court rules unveiled June 21 by the U.S. District Court.

A media coalition led by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked the court to “reject the proposed rule in its entirety” because “the court already has adequate safeguards in place to protect First Amendment rights while ensuring the fair administration of justice.”

The draft rule, the coalition argued in its letter, would “violate the free speech rights of parties, attorneys, court employees, interns, security officers,” and marshals, while limiting “the free flow of information concerning the judicial system.” It would be devastating for the public and press, the coalition warned, because it “restricts the public’s knowledge about politically significant issues” since commentary is most likely in exceedingly newsworthy cases.

Rhode Island Bar Association President Philip M. Weinstein praised the decision as “an example of the court and the lawyers working together, communicating to achieve a reasonable result,” The Providence Journal reported.

George E. Lieberman, past president of the Rhode Island chapter of the Federal Bar Association, told the Journal that the court’s attempt “to make certain that people get a fair trial is an admirable goal. But the wording raised some issues for counsel and seemed to affect what counsel considered appropriate conduct and, in some cases, was necessary to effectively represent their clients.”

Gags on the speech of attorneys, parties, court employees, interns, security officers, and marshals are permissible only when narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate government interest, according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The proposed rule, however, articulated no such purpose for its use and was far from narrowly tailored since it gagged all participants during all pending cases.

When Local Rule 110 was proposed, some questioned whether it was in response to an investigative reporter’s sentencing last year for refusing to reveal the source of a leaked FBI videotape. Reporter Jim Taricani was sentenced to six months home confinement for refusing to reveal the source of a tape showing a Providence official taking a bribe from a government informant. Torres, who sentenced Taricani, told the Journal that the proposed rule was not a reaction to the leaked tape.

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