Media groups gain access to settlement, but cannot intervene
LOUISIANA–In early June, a federal court in New Orleans rejected a motion by media groups to intervene in a sexual harassment lawsuit against a former superintendent and school board in Covington, but granted the media access to transcripts of secret settlement proceedings and unsealed the court record.
U.S. District Judge Edith Brown Clement let stand an order prohibiting the disclosure of the sexual and medical histories of parties and nonparties, through documents, statements or transcripts. Clement rejected the media’s contention that the order was a prior restraint on speech, holding that it was “narrowly tailored” and applied to the litigants and not to the media.
Clement denied the media’s motion to intervene because it was filed sixteen months after the media had “constructive or actual knowledge” of the orders, and because the parties relied on the promise of confidentiality to reach a settlement.
The court also noted that the media would be prejudiced because it would be unable to report on and publish the terms of the settlement, and that the settlement was a topic of public interest because it concerned the conduct of public officials and the disbursement of public funds.
In January 1996, a magistrate judge approved the confidentiality agreement signed by the parties prohibiting disclosure of any information pertaining to medical conditions, health records or sexual relationships. The parties reached a settlement in October 1996 and signed an agreement making the terms of the settlement confidential and sealing the entire court record.
The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune and the Louisiana Press Association moved in February 1997 to intervene in the civil lawsuit in order to challenge the confidentiality orders and to seek access to a transcript of the settlement proceedings. The media argued that the orders violated their First Amendment right to receive information.
Carol Marcus and Chere Currault, former employees of the St. Tammany Parish School Board, claim that they were sexually harassed by former superintendent Terry Bankston. The plaintiffs initiated the lawsuit in September 1995 after the board rejected their initial demand for $400,000 each. Less than a week before the suit was to go to trial last fall, the school board voted 9-3 to approve the out-of-court settlement. (Marcus v. St. Tammany Parish School Board; Media Counsel: Jack Weiss, New Orleans)