By: MARK SHERMAN/The Associated Press
(AP) News organizations asked a Washington court Friday to free a legal newspaper to publish information, found in court records, that has been ordered suppressed by a local judge.
The court records involve a dispute between juice maker POM Wonderful and its law firm. They were supposed to have been sealed from public view at the judge’s order but mistakenly were not.
The news organizations say that, despite the mistake, this rare example of prior restraint on publication lacks “any conceivable justification” and should be reversed immediately.
The National Law Journal appealed to be allowed to publish the records. It is supported in the case by the American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Dow Jones, Gannett, The New York Times, NPR, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The Washington Post.
The law journal so far has abided by an order from a District of Columbia Superior Court judge not to publish the name of the federal regulatory agency that is investigating POM. The newspaper, now backed by sister organizations, is appealing the order to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Judge Judith Bartnoff verbally ordered the records sealed on July 9, during a closed-door hearing in the dispute between POM and the Hogan Lovells law firm. Bartnoff issued a written order on July 20.
But the records hadn’t actually been sealed by July 15, when the newspaper said it obtained from the court’s files copies of publicly available documents that contained the regulatory agency’s name.
A week later, POM asked the judge to order the law journal and its parent company, ALM Media, not to publish the regulatory agency’s name. The judge granted a temporary restraining order the next day and has set a hearing for Aug. 6.
Bartnoff said the court’s interest in ensuring that its orders are put in place outweighed the newspaper’s argument about press freedom.
The Supreme Court has never upheld an order prohibiting a media outlet from publishing information. Nearly 40 years ago, the court refused to block The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam war.