Judge denies access to Clinton videotape from Whitewater trial
ARKANSAS–The press and public have no Constitutional right to copy a videotape of President Clinton’s testimony in a criminal fraud and conspiracy trial, a federal District Court judge in Little Rock decided in mid-June. The video will remain sealed under a protective order.
Judge George Howard, Jr. found that First Amendment rights of access were satisfied by permitting the press and public to be present at the trial where the video testimony was played, thereby allowing the media to report on the testimony as part of the trial proceedings.
He did not reach the issue of whether there was a common law right of access to the videotape. But Howard acknowledged the concern raised by attorneys for the President that clips from the video would be used against Clinton in the upcoming presidential election or for commercial purposes, and would “compromise the dignity of the Presidency.”
“The Court does not believe that the press has improper motives in obtaining the videotape or would seek to distort or misuse it,” the judge wrote. “Nevertheless, once released or broadcast, the press cannot maintain control over individuals who might copy the broadcast and edit it to suit their purposes.”
A media coalition argued that the law does not permit “closing a judicial record to protect a candidate for public office.” The group, consisting of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Capital Cities/ABC, Turner Broadcasting System, NBC and CBS, asserted further that there is no basis for sealing part of the judicial record where “no jeopardy has been shown to national security interests, privacy interests or fair trial rights.”
In response to a request by intervenor Dow Jones & Co., Inc., the judge ordered that an unedited transcript of the deposition be made part of the official record and released to the public as agreed to by all parties in early June. Only an edited version of the videotape had been shown in open court during the trial.
President Clinton testified as a defense witness in the fraud trial of James McDougal and his former wife Susan McDougal, past business partners of the Clintons, and Jim Guy Tucker, Clinton’s successor as Arkansas’ governor, who were all convicted on criminal fraud and conspiracy charges in late May. The charges arose out of an independent counsel’s investigation into dealings concerning the Whitewater land development project. (U.S. v. McDougal; Media Counsel: Philip Anderson, Little Rock)