TV station wins prior restraint case


A federal appeals panel in Florida has struck down a state judge’s order that had barred WKMG-TV (Ch. 6, CBS) Orlando from airing stories based on documents legally obtained from an abandoned storage unit. The former owner of the documents, a political consultant, had claimed that his privacy rights somehow trumped the First Amendment.

The Post-Newsweek Station had obtained the files that had formerly belonged to Doug Guetzloe from the man who bought them at an auction for 10 bucks after Guetzloe quit paying the rent on a storage unit. The station began reporting on the contents, including juicy details of Guetzloe’s dealings with several political figures, until a judge in Orange County, where Orlando is located, barred the station from revealing any more information from the documents. The order was later modified to apply only to medical records and attorney-client communications. That didn’t satisfy the station, which appealed to the federal courts, citing the doctrine repeatedly upheld by the US Supreme Court that prior restraint of the press is unlawful.

"Although Appellant [WKMG] raises several arguments, we need only address one – whether the injunction imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint on the press in violation of the First Amendment," the three-judge federal appeals panel said in last week’s ruling. The court turned aside the privacy claims of Guetzloe, noting that his lawyers had failed to cite any Supreme Court ruling that upheld privacy claims as justification for prior restraint of the press. The injunction against WKMG has been struck down, although Guetzloe vows to continue his appeal. He is also suing to regain possession of the documents. WKMG had been supported with briefs filed by RTNDA, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Society of Professional Journalists, The Florida Association of Broadcasters, The Florida Press Association, The First Amendment Foundation, The AP and numerous newspapers and television stations.

TVBR observation: What is astounding about this case is that it took months, from back in January, for such a ridiculous court ruling to be struck down. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that prior restraint of the press is forbidden and that any exception would have to clear an incredibly high hurdle. That hurdle is so high that the Supreme Court has yet to find a case that actually cleared it. Not even plans to publish stolen, classified government documents qualified. Remember the "Pentagon Papers" case of the New York Times vs. the US Government? Certainly saving a political consultant from embarrassment doesn’t come close to qualifying.