FEDS MULL COURT-RECORD ACCESS IN CYBERSPACE

By: Todd Shields

Rule-Making In A Wired World Group


WASHINGTON – During last year’s presidential vote recount
battle, Florida courts quickly posted lawyers’ filings and counterfilings on
the Internet. For journalists craving access to the historic arguments, the
rapid-fire Web postings showed a promising face to the brave new world
of electronic court documents.

Now, major newspaper companies and journalistic societies fear that a
different face may prevail. The federal judiciary is considering whether
rules that keep paper records widely available should apply to electronic
case files – or whether to craft more-restrictive standards.

The rule-making is one front in the ongoing battle over privacy in an
increasingly wired society. Even as newspapers and others push for
wide access, others say records should not be open to anyone with a
modem.

Privacy advocates say identity thieves and unscrupulous marketers may
feast upon electronic court documents that are easy to download, index,
and copy. Journalists say restricting access would undermine traditional
public scrutiny of the courts and would make it harder for reporters who
investigate a range of subjects such as lax enforcement of drunken-
driving laws, workplace safety violations, and errors in death-penalty
cases.

“This is a huge issue for us,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).

The RCFP, along with the Radio-Television News Directors Association
and the Society of Professional Journalists, told the federal judiciary that
records should be available electronically just as they are to people who
walk into a courthouse.

The groups’ joint brief was among 244 comments recently filed with the
Judicial Conference, a body made up of federal judges, which could
issue its opinion on the records issue as soon as this fall. The Judicial
Conference may only recommend, but its findings carry considerable
weight in all federal courts and, by example, in many state courts.

The Judicial Conference said a Web-based system would make files
available to be “viewed, printed, or downloaded, for a minimal fee of 7
cents per page, by anyone, at any time, through the Internet.”

The prospect chills Tena Friery, research director for the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. “We talk with
people who are victims of identity theft every day,” Friery said. “There
really are dangers.” She called for courts to safeguard individuals’ Social
Security numbers. And she said easily downloaded filings in criminal
cases could leave witnesses liable to intimidation and victims open to
embarrassment.


Newspaper interests say concerns over electronic documents can be
dealt with on a case-by-case basis, as they are for paper documents,
with lawyers persuading judges when information needs to be sealed. In
a joint filing to federal authorities, the Newspaper Association of America,
the Washington Post Co., the Tribune Co., Gannett Co. Inc., and others
said they were “deeply concerned” that privacy issues might lead to
“overbroad” restrictions.



Todd Shields (tshields@editorandpublisher.com) is the Washington editor for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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