CALIFORNIA — A coalition of journalists and news outlets across the country filed suit in federal district court in San Francisco in early February seeking to invalidate new civil and criminal California laws barring prospective witnesses and jurors in criminal cases from selling their stories before the trial’s end.
The suit charges that the laws, which were prompted by a string of witnesses in the O.J. Simpson murder trial who sold their stories to newspapers and television programs before and during the trial, “chill the press’ exercise of its First and Fourteenth Amendment right to gather and publish the news.”
The laws make it illegal for witnesses and jurors in criminal proceedings to be paid for information pertaining to the case in which they are involved. Witnesses are restricted until one year from the actual date of the crime or until a final judgment is rendered in court, whichever is later. For jurors, the prohibition stands until 90 days after the final judgment.
The laws do allow jurors “lawful compensation” not exceeding $50, such as being taken to lunch or dinner. “Information” is defined in the law as personal knowledge obtained through witnessing an event.
The suit asks that the court declare the provisions unconstitutional and enjoin enforcement of the statutes.
The California First Amendment Coalition told the Associated Press that the criminal and civil laws concerning payment of sources hinder newsgathering and deprives the public of newsworthy information.
Coalition members, including the Associated Press, 14 radio and television stations and 200 daily, weekly and student-run newspapers, said most news outlets do not pay sources for information.
But, the suit states, “it is at times necessary for [newsgatherers] to require sources of information to travel considerable distances, devote substantial amounts of their time, and … inconvenience themselves in order to interview and/or tape or record the interview.” Therefore, some sort of “benefit” is sometimes needed to obtain an interview. The Coalition has challenged the vagueness of the laws’ use of “benefit,” saying the word does not specify any particular method of compensation, monetary or otherwise.
The complaint also argues that the penal code provisions impose restrictions on speech and the press that are “vague, uncertain, and fail to establish” any reasonable standard of conduct.
In light of the laws’ vagueness and punishment of otherwise lawfully obtained, truthful information, they should be ruled unconstitutional, the media parties argued.
The Coalition currently is awaiting a hearing date on its motion. (California First Amendment Coalition v. California; Media Counsel: Richard Hoffman, Washington, D.C.)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.