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Internet news service asserts 'right to publish'

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    NMU         NEW YORK         Secret Courts         Mar 10, 2000    

Internet news service asserts ‘right to publish’

  • Fight for access to federal judges’ financial disclosure forms has lead an Internet news service to argue that it has a First Amendment right to publish truthful information.

Web-based news service APBnews.com has added a First Amendment “right-to-publish” claim to its federal lawsuit currently pending in New York City against the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure.

APBnews.com filed its lawsuit following the Conference’s rejection of its request for copies of the financial disclosure forms for more than 1,600 federal judges.

According to the American Lawyer Media news service, the new First Amendment claim alleges that APBnews.com properly submitted its request for copies of the disclosure reports and that the denial of the request “necessarily implies that if APBnews.com posts copies of disclosure reports on its Web site, it and its employees may become the subject of criminal or civil proceedings and any sanctions that flow therefrom.” According to the complaint, that implication violates the U.S. Constitution because “the First Amendment does not permit the imposition of sanctions on the publication of truthful information contained in records that are open to public inspection. . . . [Therefore, the defendants] have improperly, unlawfully and unconstitutionally violated APBnews.com’s First Amendment right to publish.”

In another recent development, The Spokesman-Review of Spokane posted information on its web site that it took from its copies of the financial disclosure forms of six federal judges. It is the first newspaper to post the information since the denial of APBnews.com’s request, according to a story on the APBnews.com web site. Other news organizations had posted the information on their web sites before the lawsuit, including The Kansas City Star and WNBC-TV in New York City.

APBnews.com’s lawsuit alleges that the disclosure reports are judicial records that should be made available to all of the public, including the news service. It also alleges that the rejection of the request for copies of the reports abridges the First Amendment’s right of access protections and the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection and due process provisions.

The amended lawsuit names the committee, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, and the U.S. Marshals Service as defendants. It requests that the court require the committee to release all of the forms to APBnews.com without assessing any copying fees, declare that the committee violated the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes and award APBnews.com attorney fees and costs.

The lawsuit comes in response to the committee’s Dec. 14 decision to permanently reject APBnews.com’s request for copies of all of the forms for posting on its web site. The committee stated that releasing the records to APBnews.com would improperly allow any visitors to www.APBnews.com to view a judge’s disclosure form without that judge knowing who was gaining access to his or her records.

(APBnews.com v. Committee on Financial Disclosure; Media Counsel: Mark Zaid, Washington, D.C.)

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