Judicial Watch Victory: Ninth Circuit Orders 1st Amendment Courtroom Access Lawsuit to Proceed
AUGUST 04, 2014
Federal Lawsuit challenges Los Angeles County Superior Court decision denying Full Disclosure Network same access granted to CNN
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that on July 18, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a Los Angeles County Superior Court decision denying Emmy-Award winning producer Leslie Dutton and the Full Disclosure Network access to a courtroom to record footage for a documentary (Leslie Dutton et al. v. David S. Wesley et al. (No. 12-56162)). CNN was granted access to the same courtroom to record a news report on the same subject matter as the Dutton/Full Disclosure Network documentary. Dutton and the Full Disclosure Network claim that the denial was based on illegal viewpoint discrimination.
In reversing and remanding the case to the lower court, the Ninth Circuit appellate panel ruled:
The empty courtroom that the plaintiffs sought to access to film their documentary is either a nonpublic forum or a limited public forum … Either way, speech restrictions are impermissible unless they are reasonable in light of the purposes served by the forum and viewpoint neutral … The plaintiffs’ complaint includes enough factual content to permit the reasonable inference that the defendants denied the plaintiffs’ request to access the courtroom because of the plaintiffs’ viewpoint.
Dutton and Full Disclosure Network have been seeking access to the courtroom, located in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, since 2011. The documentary, entitled “The Cost of Courage,” features narration by Ed Asner and concerns Richard I. Fine, a 70-year old disbarred California lawyer who was held in solitary confinement for 18 months in Los Angeles County’s notorious Men’s Central Jail for civil “coercive” contempt stemming from his efforts to expose a “double dipping” compensation scheme involving Los Angeles County judges. Dutton and Full Disclosure Network sought access to the courtroom for approximately 30 minutes, “any day the courtroom is empty, at any time,” in order to record eye witness interviews and read from a transcript of proceedings in Fine’s civil contempt case, which took place in the courtroom. Dutton and Full Disclosure Network had been highly critical of both Fine’s lengthy incarceration and the “double dipping.”
In March 2012, Judicial Watch filed a lawsuiton behalf of Dutton and Full Disclosure Network in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. In the lawsuit, Judicial Watch argued that the Los Angeles County Superior Court “has a long-standing practice of making courtrooms available to members of the media for filming, including filming news reports about cases of public interest, when the courtrooms are not being used for public proceedings” and that the Dutton/Full Disclosure request had been rejected without explanation on multiple occasions even though a nearly identical request by CNN had been granted. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit on June 20, 2012.
As a result of the reversal, the Los Angeles County Superior Court will now have to defend its decision to allow CNN to report from the courthouse on Fine’s case, but to bar Dutton and Full Disclosure Network from doing so.
“This is a clear-cut victory for the Freedom of Speech,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “It’s rather extraordinary to have to file a lawsuit against a court, and this case shows that even courts are not beyond the protections of the First Amendment. Courts can’t arbitrarily pick and choose between news media outlets depending upon how they report on a story.”
Leslie Dutton said: “We are elated with the ruling. Not only will we have the opportunity to prove our case in court, but we are one step closer to completing the documentary we envisioned.”