NEFAC, Media and Open Government Groups Continue to Argue for Immediate Access to Civil Court Documents

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | justin@nefirstamendment.org

The New England First Amendment Coalition recently joined 12 other open government and media organizations in the filing of an amicus brief supporting the need for same-day access to civil court documents.

The case, Courthouse News Service v. Planet, is pending in the U.S. District Court of California. It involves a state Superior Court practice of withholding civil complaints until court officials can process the documents, which often takes several days or longer.

Drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and filed on March 21, the brief argues that the First Amendment provides a right of access to civil complaint documents as soon as they are filed. It asserts that protecting this right will benefit the public by enhancing understanding of the court system and facilitating more timely and accurate news reporting.

NEFAC and its fellow amici filed a separate amicus brief in the case when it was being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2014. The appeals court remanded the case, instructing the lower court to apply a presumption of access to civil complaints and to determine if there are compelling interests that outweigh the need for that access.

“Though this case isn’t within New England jurisdictions, it presents issues that are of serious concern to all journalists,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC. “We need to protect the public’s interest in timely access to court documents.”

The brief argues that withholding civil complaints until court officials can process the documents is a “troubling scenario” because the ability to accurately report the news in a timely manner is crucial to journalists and news organizations.

“Websites for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, for example, measure the timeliness of news updates in minutes. Other news services, such as Dow Jones Newswires, or social media platforms, such as Twitter, mark new posts by the second,” the brief states, adding that “quick access to newsworthy information is an important element of the news business for competitive reasons, but it also serves the interests of the public. Timely access to court documents makes reporting more accurate, fair, and complete, and thus should be encouraged by courts.”

Civil complaints are time sensitive and have the highest newsworthiness the day they are filed, according to the brief, so news media and the public should have this information in the quickest and most efficient manner. 

“The public has a right to know what matters are pending before state courts and may be demanding court resources for years to come,” the brief argues, adding that “denying reporters access to civil complaints on the day they are filed threatens to stifle free speech and public debate at the moment complaints are most newsworthy.”

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NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.