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Court Clerk Can't Withhold Press Access

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

If you want to find the bleeding edge of press freedoms, look no further than legal news stories.

In a case filed by a news agency, a federal judge has ordered a Chicago court clerk to make newly filed complaints immediately available to the press. That includes lawsuits that haven't yet been processed by the clerk's office for electronic filing.

It's one of many cases filed by news companies, which will challenge any law that curtails their freedoms. It's about more than fighting for the First Amendment, however; it's because yesterday's news isn't news anymore.

"Immediate and Contemporaneous"

In Courthouse News Service v. Brown, U.S. Judge William Kennelly said the clerk must make new cases immediately available to news agencies.

"The Seventh Circuit has repeatedly observed that, where a First Amendment right of access is found, such access should be 'immediate and contemporaneous,'" Kennelly wrote.

Naturally, Courthouse News, along with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Reuters and several other news organizations promptly reported the decision. It affected them directly.

Their reporters scour newly filed cases daily for potential news stories. But clerk Dorothy Brown, trying to get a handle on the court's transition to electronic filing, changed the process.

She started withholding a third of the new cases so that her staff could "accept" them in the computer system first. That prompted the lawsuit.

Here and There

Courthouse News filed a similar suit in California last year, when an Orange County clerk made the same kind of change.

A federal judge in the Ninth Circuit there ruled for the clerk, saying "minor delays simply do not constitute a First Amendment violation." In Chicago, the judge rejected that ruling.

Kennelly said the Seventh Circuit emphasized the immediate availability of court documents in Grove Fresh Distributors v. Everfresh Juice Company. The "newsworthiness of a particular story is often fleeting," the appeals court recognized.

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