A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

FOI In-Brief

By Quill

Courts may allow e-access to civil cases

Federal courts may allow electronic access to civil and bankruptcy case files, following a decision by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the courts’ rules-making body. However, electronic access to criminal files will not be permitted. Law enforcement agents or witnesses could be harmed if information identifying them is widely spread, said U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis, who helped guide the courts’ policy review and announced the decision Sept. 19. Editor & Publisher reported that Davis said the courts would re-examine access to criminal files within two years. He said the guiding principle is to make court files available “as much as we can, and look at the safety issues.” Free-speech advocates lauded the decision as an important statement of openness as a guiding principle.

Court TV sues New York for camera access

Seeking television access to “the most important kinds of trials” in the country, Court TV filed suit Sept. 4 to have the New York state ban on cameras in the courtroom declared unconstitutional. “We believe that the American people, and New Yorkers specifically, deserve to be able to see their judicial system in action,” Court TV Chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff said at a Manhattan news conference. Court TV noted that several New York state trial judges have allowed cameras after ruling that the ban is unconstitutional. A judge last year allowed television coverage of the trial of four New York City police officers acquitted in the death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo. “New York is considered by many to be one of the premier legal centers in the nation, and the cases that are heard in its courts are among the most interesting and important,” Schleiff said in a statement. He argued New Yorkers would gain “a more comprehensive understanding and knowledge of their judicial system’’ if the law banning cameras was declared unconstitutional. The lawsuit seeks to strike down a 1952 law that prevents cameras in most New York courtrooms. All 50 states allow cameras to record appeals court proceedings, but 10 states ban them at the trial level. The 40 other states generally allow cameras at the trial level but usually at the discretion of the judge.

Florida officials seal driver’s license records

Officials in Florida are sealing some driver’s license records after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Federal authorities investigating the attacks have ordered Florida officials to seal the driver’s license records of people of certain nationalities. Under Florida law, such records, which include names, addresses and driving infractions, are public information. Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, declined to elaborate on which countries are involved or provide other details, according to the Freedom Forum. In mid-September, members of the news media, including The Associated Press, had requested and received license records of several of the suspects, as well as those of other Floridians believed to be targets of the federal investigation. Many of the subjects of the investigation come from the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia.

Newspapers fight autopsy photo law

The Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel have asked a state court to declare unconstitutional a Florida law barring access to autopsy photographs without a judge’s permission. The newspapers filed the motion in late August in Ft. Lauderdale. The law was adopted in March after the death of race car legend Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. The Sentinel, which had just published a series on NASCAR driver safety before the race, sought access to Earnhardt’s autopsy photos so its experts could review how he died. Earnhardt’s widow pushed for the law, saying public viewing of the photos would violate her family’s right to privacy. Under the law, members of the public must convince a judge that there is good reason to release autopsy photos. Other Florida news organizations are involved in a similar suit. Meanwhile, a Gannett News Service story published by the Pensacola News Journal, The News-Press in Fort Myers, and Florida Today in Melbourne, reported that NASCAR gave $15,000 to Florida’s Republican Party the day after a judge upheld a new GOP-supported law. Campaign records show the GOP reported the check on June 14, though a NASCAR official said Sept. 6 that the donation came in conjunction with a June 9 fund-raiser in Orlando featuring Vice President Dick Cheney. NASCAR and GOP officials denied any connection between the contribution and the Legislature’s swift passage of the law. NASCAR spokesman John Griffin said NASCAR officials also gave to the state Democratic Party this summer, but Democratic officials said they were unaware of such a contribution, according to the newspaper report.

War reporting rules remain unclear

A Sept. 28 meeting between Pentagon officials and news media representatives left it clear that ground rules for reporting a new war are not clear, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. American journalists might, to some extent, join troops in ground attacks against Afghanistan or stand aboard aircraft carriers serving as launch pads for jets on bombing raids. Or they may be forced to gather in press pools, similar to those assembled for reporting the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Committee reported. As the administration gears up for what President Bush has described as a new kind of war, many journalists are growing concerned that they will have less information and less access to U.S. troops than ever before. Even the use of deliberate disinformation cannot be ruled out. In a Sept. 24 article in The Washington Post, a military officer involved in the planning said, “This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine … . We’re going to lie about things. If it is an information war, certainly the bad guys will lie.” President George Bush said, “Let me condition the press this way: Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret.” Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman quoted in The Washington Post, has been consulting with numerous journalists. “Our inclination, our desire, is to put out as much information as possible, without, of course, compromising any operations,” she said. Clarke said the Pentagon would try to have journalists, at least “pool” reporters, accompany combat troops, although “there may be some operations where it’s just not possible.” Hearing on leaks bill is postponed A Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on a proposal to bolster government secrecy laws has been postponed because of a request by Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to the committee chairman’s office. The Associated Press reported that the provision, supported by committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., would expand current laws to allow the government to prosecute people who leak “properly classified” information on matters beyond those concerning national defense. Violators would face a felony charge and up to three years in prison. Ashcroft asked Shelby to postpone the hearing because the Justice Department needed more time to study the issue, a spokeswoman said. President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure last year, calling it an excessive instrument for curbing unauthorized disclosures that could “chill legitimate” efforts to report on government activities. Many Republicans and Democrats in Congress oppose the provision, as do major news media companies, civil liberties organizations, unions and historians. Media groups say the proposal would hinder reporters’ ability to gather information.

Confidentiality rights waived by Knight

Former Indiana University coach Bob Knight has signed an affidavit waiving his confidentiality rights to his employee records at the university, according to an attorney working with Knight, who is now head coach at Texas Tech. The affidavit will become part of an open meetings lawsuit challenging whether Indiana University legally fired Knight. The suit was filed by a group of alumni and basketball fans and alleges Indiana trustees broke the state’s open meetings law the day before Knight was fired. The affidavit could also affect a separate lawsuit filed against the university by The Indianapolis Star, according to the Associated Press. The lawsuit accuses the school of violating Indiana’s open records law and seeks access to documents in Knight’s personnel file, including records compiled during IU’s inquiry into his conduct before he was fired. Kevin Betz, a Star attorney, said Knight’s wish to open his personnel records could strengthen the newspaper’s case.