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July 11, 2005
How Odd

Proposal would restrict talk on court cases

Really annoying registration process, so here are some relevant bits:

PROVIDENCE -- A proposal by the federal court in Providence would prevent parties to court cases, their lawyers and court employees from disclosing any information about any pending case unless that information is "part of the public record" or a judge says it's OK.

Advocates for free speech and a free press last week sharply criticized the proposal, which is part of a 141-page draft of amended local rules for Rhode Island's U.S. District Court.
"This would be a blanket gag order on First Amendment rights of anyone involved in litigation," said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va. "That's insane and clearly unconstitutional."

"I can't believe someone proposed something like that," said George Washington University Law School Prof. C. Thomas Dienes, who specializes in communications law and constitutional law. "I think it's facially unconstitutional."

I'm just saying. Journalists and Judith Miller* aren't the only ones who need to be protecting the First Amendment.

Torres said federal judges are proposing amendments to local rules to try to head off potential problems, and he offered some examples of problems this proposal could address: If a search warrant is requested, the court wouldn't want people calling the media or, worse yet, contacting the object of the search warrant before the warrant is executed. And if a grand jury indicts someone who's at large, the court wouldn't want that person to know about the indictment, lest that person flee.

Okay, so does Rhode Island have some huge problem with this that we're not aware of? Do people involved with the routine of granting search warrants habitually call the suspected criminals and warn them?

"It seems to me to state the obvious," Torres said of the proposed rule. "If you have a document that's sealed or not part of the public record, you don't want its contents revealed before the document is unsealed."

Torres said the purpose of the proposal is to prevent the release of confidential information that would unfairly prejudice a case.

BUT STEVEN BROWN, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that the proposed rule does not include the word "confidential." And he said it draws no distinction between information that's deemed "confidential" and the much broader category of information that's not "part of the public record."

"It's clearly limiting the free speech of lawyers and parties," Brown said. "And the impact would be felt by the public that may not hear information they have a right to hear."

The proposal, which would be Local Rule of General Application 110, is entitled Disclosure of Non-Public Information and it states: "Unless authorized to do so by the court, no counsel, party, court employee, intern, court security officer, U.S. Marshal or Deputy U.S. Marshal shall disclose or disseminate to any unauthorized person information relating to any pending case that is not a part of the public record."

That's frighteningly broad, isn't it? I hope one of the Legal Blogs takes this up and discusses it. (Let me know if you see any of them talking about it.)


* Although I don't know what to think about this. Forgive me if I say that the involvement of Judith Miller in this matter colors my judgement. She's been such a Bush Administration hack that it's hard to view her as a legitimate journalist.

On the other hand, she is apparently in jail for not having written a story that revealed confidential information about an undercover CIA operative, and that's wrong on a lot of levels.

Posted by AnneZook at 07:40 AM