Reporters Committee urges federal court to allow challenge of policy that restricts access to court records

Press Release | June 6, 2012
Reporters Committee urges federal court to allow challenge of policy that restricts access to court records

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has asked a federal appellate court to reverse a lower court ruling that could severely curtail the news media's ability to challenge state court policies that deny access to judicial proceedings and records.

Courthouse News Service brought an action in federal court to challenge the Ventura County, Calif., Superior Court's policy of withholding records filed with the court from public inspection until after the court completes what it calls "processing," a series of administrative tasks that can take several days and sometimes much longer. The action alleged that the procedure violates the public and media's First Amendment-based right of public access to judicial proceedings and records.

The court dismissed the claim, relying on a seldom-used doctrine that addresses the concern that federal courts not unduly interfere with pending and future state court proceedings.

The Reporters Committee filed an amicus curiae brief Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in support of Courthouse News' request that the appellate court reverse the lower court's dismissal of its claim.

The continued availability of federal courts as a forum for adjudicating the media's First Amendment rights in challenges to states' systemic court access policies is necessary to safeguard the media's constitutional rights of access, the brief argued.

"Where a constitutional right of public access is implicated, concerns beyond a court’s interest in managing its cases or docket flow as it sees fit must inform any decision that restricts this right," it stated. "The news media and others asserting their right of public access to judicial proceedings and records must have an avenue by which federal guidance is available to adjudicate these constitutional rights in a manner consistent with well-established access jurisprudence."

In addition, a court policy that delays public disclosure of newly filed actions violates not only this access right but also the news media's constitutional right to gather and disseminate news, according to the brief. Perhaps more significantly, though, a lack of prompt access to court records -- the documents on which journalists rely daily to responsibly report matters of public interest and concern -- severely curtails their ability to do their job in a manner that best serves the public interest, it added.

Specifically, the information contained in court records is often highly newsworthy and likely to be reported but not as reliably had official documents been available, the brief stated.

"Many lawsuits involve highly newsworthy stories. The public should be allowed to learn about them promptly," said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. "Other California counties seem to have no problem with prompt release of newsworthy information about court cases. Ventura County should be able to quickly release such information as well."

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Civil courts -- Cameras and recording equipment

· Master - Open Courts Compendium: A. The First Amendment presumption of access