The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today condemned a gag order on The Orange County Register, calling it an unprecedented and unconstitutional prior restraint on the press.
Orange County Superior Court Judge David C. Velasquez issued the gag order on Friday in Gonzalez v. Freedom Communications, Inc., a civil dispute between The Register’s parent company and its delivery drivers. The court’s order prohibits the parties from discussing any non-expert testimony given at the trial. It extends to “all means and manner of communication whether in person, electronic, through audio or video recording, or print medium.”
The Register reported that Velasquez said in court the order was directed specifically at The Register and other properties owned by Freedom, and not other media organizations.
The Supreme Court consistently has struck down such prior restraints against the press, even when faced with life-or-death issues like the imminent publication of atomic secrets, the Sixth Amendment rights of defendants facing the death penalty, and the publication of the names of rape victims. Even where the press is a party to the litigation, the Supreme Court has approved gag orders only on non-public information that the media party obtained through discovery.
Velasquez’s order is far broader. It prohibits The Register and other Freedom entities from reporting on court proceedings that are open to the public.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, decried the gag order.
“The United States and California supreme courts are both unequivocal on this point – gag orders are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights, and they are impermissible in all but the direst of circumstances,” she said. “This is a run-of-the-mill lawsuit, and a gag order under these circumstances is unprecedented and utterly baseless. I think the judge should brush up on his constitutional law.”
Other First Amendment experts agreed. Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the U.C. Irvine School of Law, told The Register that the order was “clearly and blatantly unconstitutional, “ adding that “[i]t’s not a close call.” Peter Scheer, the executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told The Register that he hoped “the judge will quickly pick up his copy of the Constitution and re-read it.”