Government refuses to learn its lesson on censorship

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (pictured above) and City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto can't possibly think their lawsuit to make a journalist pay for the city's mistakes will succeed, but they're pursuing it anyway." "Karen Bass (40842055171)" by U.S. Institute of Peace is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

From Los Angeles to Tennessee, public officials who should know better keep ignoring journalists' First Amendment rights. These are just the latest examples of an alarming trend that shows no signs of slowing.

You can't spell SLAPP without LA

The City of LA is paying $300,000 to settle a frivolous lawsuit it initiated to stop a journalist, Ben Camacho, from publishing pictures of police officers that the city itself gave him.

It’s hard to imagine the city’s lawyers didn’t know the lawsuit was a baseless SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, from the outset. The rule against “prior restraints” barring the press from publishing information is virtually ironclad, especially when the government itself inadvertently released the information in question.

But the city apparently thought it could get away with bullying independent journalists, regardless of the law. Now taxpayers will be on the hook for the settlement (assuming the city council approves it), not to mention the money their government wasted prosecuting the case.

Maybe that’s why LA officials are still pursuing another, even more ridiculous lawsuit against Camacho — ultimately, this will be the taxpayers’ mess to clean up. Surely officials wouldn’t play these games with their own money.

That second lawsuit seeks to have Camacho foot the bill for a lawsuit by police officers against the city for releasing their photos to Camacho.

As we wrote in February for the Los Angeles Daily News, “If the city’s mistake caused officers damages, it should pay up, do better, and leave journalists out of it.” The principle that journalists cannot be punished for publishing lawfully obtained and truthful information is just as well established as the rules against prior restraints and government clawbacks.

It’s baffling that the city – after seemingly coming to its senses in one lawsuit – continues to pursue the other. Officials like Mayor Karen Bass and City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto can’t possibly think the suit will succeed. But as Susan Seager, an attorney for Camacho (who we recently interviewed about other press freedom violations by police in California), said, Feldstein Soto has committed herself to “a cowardly attack on the press that she thought would buy her political points with the cops.”

An embarrassing spectacle in Tennessee

Unfortunately, officials in LA are not the only ones having trouble operating within the confines of the First Amendment.

A judge in Tennessee this week scheduled a hearing on whether Michael Leahy, editor and owner of the Tennessee Star, should be held in contempt of court for publishing excerpts of writings by the shooter behind Nashville’s Covenant School massacre last year.

Perhaps in response to backlash, the judge, Chancellor I’Ashea Myles, reportedly reframed the hearing as an attempt to gather the legal and factual “landscape” surrounding the Star’s stories, published while Myles was contemplating whether hundreds of pages of the shooter’s writings should be released as public records.

Whatever the judge’s intentions were, Leahy should have never had to waste time preparing for and attending a court hearing. There is no “landscape” in which a contempt finding could conceivably be appropriate. Public records laws are there to help the press, not to confine it to reporting what the government chooses to release.

The question of whether a document should be a public record is completely separate from a journalist’s right to publish it. Nobody has alleged that the Star broke any laws to obtain the writings. It has an absolute right to publish documents its sources provide. Whether it should publish them, as a matter of ethics, has nothing to do with whether it can, as a matter of law.

If a judge is for some reason unaware of that “landscape,” they should do their research, not hale journalists into court to bring them up to speed.

Unfortunately, the cases in LA and Tennessee are just two of many recent instances at both the federal and state level where judges, prosecutors, and other government officials have shown either a lack of understanding of, or contempt for, press freedom.

It’s clearer than ever that government agencies need to step up efforts to train and educate their employees on the First Amendment, and the public — especially journalists — needs to call out officials who still don’t get it.

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