The Supreme Court of South Carolina has dissolved a prior restraint against a small-town newspaper reporter covering the ongoing legal battle for the estate of singer James Brown.
The reporter, Sue Summer, had received an anonymous package containing the diary of Tommie Rae Hynie Brown, who was recently recognized by a South Carolina court as the widow of James Brown. The diary, which was filed under seal with the court, contained passages that seemed to imply that Ms. Brown was not, in fact, married to Mr. Brown.
Summer posted some passages from the diary on a Facebook page, until Judge Doyet Early III granted Ms. Brown’s motion for a temporary restraining order against Summer. Judge Early wrote that Ms. Brown “may suffer irreparable harm” if Summer was not restrained from publishing. The court ordered Summer not to disseminate or publish “the contents of any diary or document belonging to Mrs. Tommie Rae Brown or any portion thereof.”
Summer’s lawyers appealed the order and sought additional relief directly from the Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Last week, Supreme Court did not mince words in tossing the prior restraint with a short order. The Supreme Court wrote: “The temporary restraining order clearly violates petitioner’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and will not be upheld by this Court."
The result is consistent with federal case law, which generally holds that a journalist cannot be punished for, or prevented from, publishing information of public concern that he or she obtains through lawful means, even if the journalist's source obtained or disseminated the information improperly.