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Reporters Committee: Federal court must deny government effort to bar publication of John Bolton’s book

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  1. Prior Restraint
Justice Department lawsuit seeks unconstitutional prior restraint on book’s publisher and booksellers
National security adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Update (June 21, 2020): On June 20, a federal judge denied the government’s request to block the publication and dissemination of John Bolton’s book. 

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is urging a federal court to deny the government’s unconstitutional efforts to bar the publication and dissemination of former Trump administration National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, which has already been shipped to distributors and retailers, and reported on by numerous media organizations.

In a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the D.C. District Court, Reporters Committee attorneys, joined by the Association of American Publishers, Dow Jones, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, argue that the government’s request for a temporary restraining order that would apply not just to Bolton, but also to the book’s publisher and booksellers who are not defendants in the case, amounts to an unconstitutional prior restraint.

“Such an extraordinarily broad injunction would be a clear prior restraint that violates long-settled constitutional law,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The court must reject this effort to censor the free flow of information to the public about government activities. This is exactly the kind of information that courts have time and again said enjoys an especially heavy protection against government efforts to suppress it.”

The Trump administration’s case comes almost five decades after courts rejected a Nixon administration lawsuit seeking to prevent The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the “Pentagon Papers,” a massive trove of documents detailing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

In the brief, attorneys for the Reporters Committee argue that the government’s request for a “sweeping, worldwide injunction” that would apply to non-defendants is a transparent attempt to avoid confronting the clear precedent set in that case. They write that the government could not have directly sued the book’s publisher “without running straight into the legacy of the Pentagon Papers case and the considerable Supreme Court precedent from both before and after that decision that make clear the First Amendment protects the publication and dissemination of speech from prior restraint.”

In urging the court to reject the government’s arguments, Reporters Committee attorneys also note that a failure to do so would allow for a system where “upon the unilateral assertion of the executive branch that material is classified, a court could stop a book publisher from publishing, a distributor from distributing, a seller from selling, and a reader from reading, political or expressive work critical of government agencies or officials.”

A hearing on the government’s request for an emergency order is scheduled for 1 p.m. today.

Read the full brief.


The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

AP Photo by Evan Vucci