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Reporters Committee deplores Texas prior restraint

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today deplored the April 4 issuance of a prior restraint by a…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today deplored the April 4 issuance of a prior restraint by a Texas state court trial court judge against the Associated Press.

Travis County District Court Judge Margaret Cooper issued a temporary restraining order against the wire service at the request of Permian Sea Shrimp and Seafood, whose loan records had been released, and its bank. The information at issue concerns a Texas agricultural loan guarantee program and was obtained by an AP reporter from the Texas Agriculture Department in response to a request filed under the Texas Public Information Act.

Cooper has set an April 13 hearing to determine the propriety of the state agency’s release of the information and whether to lift the prior restraint or keep it in place permanently.

“This case is particularly egregious because the information that the AP wants to publish is clearly a public record,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “The AP is complying with the judge’s order, but it is shocking that a hearing to resolve this prior restraint was not held immediately.”

Since 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated repeatedly that government attempts to censor the media are presumed unconstitutional. The Court said that it rarely would uphold orders not to publish or statutes threatening punishment for publishing certain information. In fact, the Supreme Court has articulated only one circumstance under which a prior restraint would be permissible – an order barring publication of the movement of troop ships during war time. Accordingly, editorial decisions about publication of information the government deems sensitive are generally left solely to the discretion of media organizations.

Here, the seafood company’s motion argued that the information obtained by the AP included confidential trade secret material that the state agency should not have distributed to the news service. The state agency has defended its release of the information as proper under a 1998 opinion letter from the Texas Attorney General’s office that was written in response to an earlier Texas Public Information Act request.

The Reporters Committee is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters and news editors dedicated to protecting the First Amendment interests of the news media. It has provided research, guidance and representation in major press cases in state and federal courts, including in cases concerning prior restraints.