Blood Feud: In Unusual Step, California Judge Bars Newspaper Story


A judge has barred a newspaper from publishing information obtained under the California Public Records Act about a synthetic blood substitute undergoing testing, saying it would compromise the drug maker’s trade secrets.

Superior Court Judge Joan M. Lewis issued a rare temporary order barring the San Diego Reader from publishing details about the project at Northfield Laboratories Inc. of Evanston, Ill.

Northfield spokeswoman Sophia Twaddell said Thursday that the company and the newspaper planned to meet next week. “We are hopeful that the two sides can reach an amicable agreement,” she said.

The judge issued the order last month in an ex parte hearing, meaning attorneys for the Reader were not notified and did not have an opportunity to plead their case.

The Reader, a free weekly newspaper, obtained the documents from San Diego County under the California Public Records Act.

Northfield sued the Reader and publisher James Holman last month to stop publication of what it calls trade secrets about Polyheme, a synthetic red blood cell substitute designed for trauma victims. It is undergoing clinical trials at the University of California, San Diego, which operates San Diego County’s main trauma center and 23 others nationwide.

In its lawsuit, Northfield said it “would lose considerable competitive advantage gained at the expense of 20 years of research and development” if trade secrets were disclosed.

Northfield expects approval of the drug from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, something other companies with similar products failed to get, it said.

A small amount of information the newspaper has might contain trade secrets, said Richard Spirra, an attorney for the Reader. He hopes for an agreement with Northfield to balance the newspaper’s right to publish with the company’s wishes, he said.

Lewis’ order was issued Dec. 21 and remains in effect through Jan. 13. It lists six documents the Reader must return. Northfield has agreed the newspaper can keep them until a deal is reached.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the newspaper should challenge the order.

“I don’t think a federal court judge would be as clueless,” Dalglish said. “There is absolutely nothing out there that is more destructive of the First Amendment right of free press than an illegal prior restraint.”

Using documents from the county, the Reader reported July 28 that Polyheme was being tested only on trauma patients too ill to consent in downtown San Diego and three minority neighborhoods.

The paper then sued the university in September to obtain unredacted versions of additional documents. The university claims papers containing Northfield’s trade secrets are exempt from disclosure. A hearing is set for next month.

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