On Monday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press led dozens of media organizations in urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to block a prior restraint on the Los Angeles Times. A temporary restraining order issued Saturday directed the Times to delete an article about a plea deal agreed to by a narcotics detective accused of working with the Mexican Mafia. The plea agreement was supposed to be filed under seal but was mistakenly made publicly available to Times reporters in PACER, an online database for court documents.
On Saturday, the detective’s attorney filed an emergency motion asking a federal district judge to issue the temporary restraining order, which not only bars the Times from reporting on the details of the agreement, but also orders it to delete any articles about the agreement that were already published.
Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, made the following statement:
“It is plainly unconstitutional for a court to order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published. It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake, 90 years of legal precedent says that the court cannot prevent a news organization from doing its job and reporting the information to the public.”
In response to the temporary restraining order, the Times edited its article to remove certain details about the plea agreement and filed an emergency petition asking the Ninth Circuit to order the district court to immediately rescind the temporary restraining order. Less than 24 hours after the Times filed its emergency petition, the Reporters Committee rallied 59 media organizations to file an amicus letter in support of the Times.
“It appears that the district court may have entered the temporary restraining order in an attempt to correct the mistaken public filing of the plea agreement, which was meant to be kept under seal,” the letter states. “The district court’s desire to correct this administrative error, however, cannot justify the imposition of a prior restraint, which has now created a constitutional harm. Although courts have the power to enter sealing orders when common law and constitutional standards are met, (…) once information is made public, nearly 90 years of constitutional law stand in the way of using prior restraints to prevent a newspaper from communicating the information to its readers.”
Read the full amicus letter here.