LOS ANGELES (AP) — A U.S. judge lifted an order Tuesday that required the Los Angeles Times to remove information from an article about a court document that was meant to be kept from the public, reversing a decision that had raised concerns about freedom of the press.
Judge John Walter said he initially wasn’t sure if the newspaper had legally gained access to a sealed plea agreement and feared for the defendant’s safety, the Times reported . Walter said an investigation found that the newspaper accessed the document because it was inadvertently posted in an online database.
The plea agreement that the Times wrote about Saturday involved former city of Glendale police Detective John Balian, who pleaded guilty to bribery, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about whether he has connections with the Mexican Mafia and Armenian organized crime.
The judge said his initial decision was based on fears for Balian’s safety. The newspaper complied with the order to change the story but filed an emergency motion Sunday for it to be lifted.
The court order “clearly violates the First Amendment,” said Norman Pearlstine, executive editor of the newspaper.
“We believe that once material is in the public record, it is proper and appropriate to publish it if it is newsworthy,” Pearlstine said in a statement.
Constitutional scholars who followed the case called it unusual for a judge to issue such an order.
Craig Missakian, Balian’s attorney, said in court that he knows the law gives weight to freedom of speech but said the risks to his client were serious enough to justify a restriction on the newspaper.
“They took an irresponsible action in placing details of his plea agreement in public,” he said. “With no good reason, other than they had it and they wanted to do it.”
Kelli Sager, an attorney for the Times, cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the Pentagon Papers to be published despite containing highly classified information.
That case shows the incredibly high bar for “prior restraint,” which is the prevention of the press from publishing something, Sager said.
The Associated Press and dozens of other media outlets filed a court brief supporting the Times in the case, arguing that Walter’s order to remove information from the article “is an unconstitutional prior restraint.”
“Although courts have the power to enter sealing orders when common law and constitutional standards are met, once information is made public, nearly 90 years of constitutional law stand in the way of using prior restraints to prevent a newspaper from communicating the information to its readers,” the brief said.
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