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Public should have access to Sept. 11-related court filings

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked a federal court in Manhattan today to require open access to…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked a federal court in Manhattan today to require open access to records in the civil case over liability following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Victims of the attacks and their families filed lawsuits against airline and security companies seeking to determine liability for their injury or losses due to the security breaches that led to the attacks. Documents filed with the court in this case were presumed open, except for a few narrow categories of records Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein deemed could be confidential, including financial and trade secrets data. However, the airline and security companies have been using the narrow protective order to assert that more than 99 percent of the tens of thousands of pages of documents they filed with the court should be covered as confidential under the order.

The Reporters Committee argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that is extremely unlikely that nearly all the records contain the information required for confidentiality under the order and asked Hellerstein to require the parties to strictly adhere to the order, only limiting public access to that information allowable under the order.

“The notion that 99 percent of the documents exchanged during discovery in this case meet the strict standards of confidentiality required by the court’s protective order is ridiculous,” said Reporters Committee executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “We’re asking the court to require the parties to follow both the letter and spirit of the protective order so that the public may ultimately have access to most of the information found in the airline and security company records.”

The great public interest in information related to Sept. 11 that may be released from the filings as well as First Amendment rights to court records support openness for these records, the brief argued. The brief was filed in In re September 11 Litigation, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.