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Media challenges judge's order sealing Moussaoui pleadings

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Secret Courts         Sep 17, 2002    

Media challenges judge’s order sealing Moussaoui pleadings

  • Eight media groups argued that the sealing order is too broad and violates the public’s right to know.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined several news organizations seeking access to court documents filed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., by accused September 11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

The motion for access challenged U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema’s Aug. 29 blanket order placing “any future pleadings filed by the defendant, pro se, containing threats, racial slurs, calls to action, or other irrelevant and inappropriate language,” under seal.

Brinkema refused to use less restrictive measures, such as redacting the offensive portions of Moussaoui’s briefs, because such measures would “waste resources” of the court and government.

News organizations including ABC Inc., Associated Press, CBS Broadcasting Inc., Cable News Network, Tribune Company, USA Today and The Washington Post argued that Brinkema’s sealing order was overbroad.

“By labeling broad, undefined categories of ‘rhetoric’ by the defendant as unsuitable for public inspection based merely on its tenor or substance, divorced from any finding that specific passages pose a security threat, the August 29 Order is significantly broader than necessary to protect the government’s asserted interest,” the news organizations argued.

Brinkema ordered Moussaoui’s documents sealed after receiving an Aug. 22 letter from the government stating that “defendant is writing pleadings for the purpose of either (1) sending messages to conspirators or sympathizers, or (2) making public political statements.”

The government also argued that allowing public access to Moussaoui’s pleadings would gut the purpose of the “Special Administrative Measures” which curtail Moussaoui’s communications pending trial.

The public has a right to know Moussaoui’s arguments presented to the court, argued the news organizations.

“Moussaoui’s pleadings are the only avenue through which the public may exercise its right to hear his reply to the charges against him,” the motion argued. “The Court therefore should be especially hesitant to remove from public view material that, though ‘irrelevant’ or ‘insulting,’ does not pose the ‘substantial risk’ of ‘death or serious bodily injury’ that the SAMs are intended to prevent.”

Brinkema will consider the news organizations’ motion for access and if necessary, will hold oral arguments the week of Sept. 23.

(U.S. v. Moussaoui: Media intervenors’ counsel: Jay Ward Brown, Levine Sullivan & Koch, Washington, D.C.) ST

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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