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High court urged by Reporters Committee, media organizations to end N.Y. court closures without review

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 26 news organizations are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 26 news organizations are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments over a New York court practice of routinely closing courtrooms when undercover police officers testify. The friend-of-the-court brief argues that such closures should only be allowed after demonstrating a compelling interest in a particular case.

The brief asks the Court “to reiterate that courtrooms may not be closed in criminal trials unless the party seeking closure makes a particularized showing of harm and the trial judge undertakes an on-the-record analysis of less restrictive alternatives to closure.”

The brief continued: “There are many considerations that might influence a court’s decision on whether to limit public access to an officer’s testimony: who is present, what will be disclosed, and how public accountability can be preserved and promoted while also accommodating the safety concerns of officers working in violent surroundings. However that balance is achieved, one thing is clear. The public interest cannot be served by allowing routine courtroom closures,” the brief argued.

The case of Johnson v. New York centers on a decision by a New York trial judge to close the courtroom while an undercover police officer testified during Martin Johnson’s drug trial. The closure was ordered without any on-the-record consideration of alternatives to closure. The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, agreed that no such consideration was needed, despite a dissent from the chief judge that the decision “eviscerates the substance” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

“We do not take issue with the need to protect the identity of undercover officers, but we are very concerned when courts automatically close their doors to the public without showing the harm that would ensue otherwise or considering the alternatives to closure,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown.

Joining the Reporters Committee as amici are: Advance Publications, Inc.; American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; Atlantic Media, Inc.; Bay Area News Group; Bloomberg L.P.; Courthouse News Service; The Daily Beast Company LLC; Dow Jones & Company, Inc.; First Amendment Coalition; LIN Media; The McClatchy Company; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; National Public Radio, Inc.; The New York Times Company; The New Yorker; Newspaper Association of America; The Newspaper Guild – CWA; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; NYP Holdings, Inc.; Radio Television Digital News Association; Reuters America LLC; Society of Professional Journalists; The Washington Post; and WNET.

About the Reporters Committee

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Brief: Johnson v. New York; Moss v. New York