Monday, July 25, 2011

News-Press Defies Gag Order, Prints Confidential Info

The case of freelance reporter Peter Lance, who has had the saga of his quest to discredit the Santa Barbara police officer who arrested him for allegedly being a drunk driver published in the Santa Barbara News-Press, has taken a new twist.

On Sunday, apparently in defiance of a court order not to publish any articles revealing the contents of confidential court documents that had come into Lance’s possession, the News-Press published the contents anyway.

Lance and the News-Press are claiming that Judge Brian Hill's order prohibiting the publication of this information violates their First Amendment right of free speech. On the face of it, I would agree with them. So does, Nick Welsh of the Independent who has a very entertaining column explaining the details of this latest contretemps. Not that any of this is a laughing matter.

But what you may find funny (and I mean odd funny not humorous funny) is that even if Judge Hill did step beyond the bounds of the First Amendment in issuing his order, the fact that the order was in violation of the newspaper's and Lance's First Amendment rights may not be enough to keep either of them from being found in contempt for disobeying the order.

It's a basic rule of law that a court order has to be obeyed no matter how wrong the judge may have been in issuing it. Until the order is reversed or set aside by an appellate court, the order must be followed and violation of the order may be punished as contempt of court.

It makes sense. It's no defense to violating the law to say the law is stupid or that the judge was wrong when he or she made a ruling.

Years ago, in a case called Walker v. City of Birmingham, a matter that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, civil rights marchers defied an order issued by a southern state court which prevented them from demonstrating. The Supreme Court ruled that even though the propriety of issuing the order not to march was highly questionable, simply disobeying it was not permitted.

Someone faced with the issuance of such an order only has two alternatives: obey the order or appeal it.

So if the News-Press and Lance thought Judge Hill was wrong, why didn't they appeal his order? After all, it's not as if the paper's owner Wendy McCaw doesn't know the names of any lawyers to call.

It will be interesting to see how Judge Hill handles the case of someone who so willingly, flagrantly and publicly disobeyed a direct order of the court.
© 2011 by Craig Smith and