In an unprecedented move, a California judge has barred the Orange County Register from publishing any news stories about testimony in a lawsuit against the newspaper and its parent company, Freedom Communications. The class action lawsuit by newspaper delivery workers is seeking $100 million in damages. Numerous First Amendment-advocacy groups are now filing in support of the Register’s effort to have the order overturned as unconstitutional.
Orange County Superior Judge David Velasquez issued the gag order at the same time he fined Freedom Communications and its law firm $23,793 for intentionally destroying evidence. That resulted from the company’s failure to halt its email system from automatically deleting emails after 90 days. With testimony due to begin in a couple of weeks, the judge ordered witnesses to stay out of the courtroom during testimony by other witnesses and issued a broad order against all parties not to discuss any testimony outside the courtroom, which is not unusual, but he extended that to include any publication in the Register. He claimed the move was constitutional because it applied only to the Register, not to any other media who might be covering the trial.
The newspaper has now appealed the order to the California Court of Appeals – and it will have plenty of outside support.
“This is a clear case of prior restraint. We urge the judge to rethink this decision so journalists at The Register can perform their constitutionally protected duties “There’s also the issue of a glaring oversight in that other media outlets aren’t gagged. The paper just wants to report the news, which has no bearing on a lawsuit against its parent company,” said Dave Aeikens, President of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
In addition to SPJ, a number of other journalism and First Amendment-advocacy organizations have signed on to a brief arguing that the gag order should be struck down, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association; the Associated Press; the E.W. Scripps Company, Bloomberg News, L.P.; the American Society of Newspaper Editors; Cable News Network, Inc.; and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The lawsuit against the Register and Freedom Communications claims that newspaper delivery workers were improperly classified as independent contractors. The class-action lawsuit seeks compensation for benefits that some 6,000 current and former workers would have received had they been classified as employees.
RBR/TVBR observation: What makes any judge think they can get away with this? The US Supreme Court has held that prior restraint can be justified in only the most extreme situations – such as an imminent and clear threat to national security or public safety. Somehow we don’t see anyone’s life being threatened by testimony over who said what about how to deliver newspapers.