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Reporters Committee supports continued online access to federal plea agreements

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press strongly encouraged the Federal Judiciary to retain its policy in which all…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press strongly encouraged the Federal Judiciary to retain its policy in which all court records — including criminal plea agreements — remain available to the public online.

In response to the Judiciary’s request for comments on a proposed policy to preclude online access to plea agreements, the Reporters Committee pointed out the importance of public access to all court records, emphasizing the need for ready online access to those records to aid in efficiently and accurately reporting on matters of great public interest.

“Information found in documents filed in all court cases should be made available to the public electronically to the same extent they are available at the courthouse in paper form,” the Reporters Committee wrote. “To close off electronic access to all plea agreements is an overbroad approach to solving a problem that should not exist with the protective mechanisms presently available to courts.”

Although plea agreements would remain public records and continue to be available in federal courthouses, the Judicial Conference of the United States is considering changing its policy in order to potentially protect cooperating witnesses whose information is contained in those agreements.

The Reporters Committee, along with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists, pointed out the overbreadth of such a rule. “This limitation will indeed make it more of a challenge for individuals to readily obtain information contained in criminal plea agreements, but its affect will be felt more by members of the media and the public who have a right and interest in learning this information than it would by individuals meaning to actually harm those cooperating witnesses,” the comments stated.

The comments of the Reporters Committee, ASNE and SPJ can be found at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20071026-commentsto.pdf