Federal Court Upholds State Sunshine Laws

Article excerpt

THE FIRST AMENDMENT roots of state open meeting laws received some much-needed watering recently when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down two broad gag orders that a federal judge had issued in a Louisiana school desegregation case.

The unanimous decision of a three-judge panel of the New Orleans appeals court marked a triumph for the Baton Rouge daily Advocate and its sister television station, WBRZ.

The two news outlets had appeated U.S. District judge john V Parker Jr.'s order that had prohibited elected or appointed officials of die East Baton Rouge Parish School District from dicussing with the media sensitive negotiations underway in a 40-year-old civil desegregation suit against the district. It also struck down an order in which the judge authorized the school board to hold close-door meetings to discuss the desegregation plan.

In a peculiar overlapping of state and federal jurisdiction, the panel's decision faulted Parker for issuing the orders "without even considering die Louisiana Open Meetings Law.",

The dispute arose Feb. 6 when Parker, at the request of the school board, issued a sweeping confidentiality order, that "prohibited elected board members, other school district officials, the board's attorneys or any of the school district's 7,OOO employees from making,"any oral or written comment" on,"any aspect of any draft school desegregation plan."

"It was the most incredibly broad order," said Linda Lightfoot, executive editor of the Advocate. "It was classic prior restraint. We found that any time we cared any school principal and asked about anything not even remotely related to the desegregation case, they said they couldn't talk. So we had to appeal."

On Feb. 22, Parker held a hearing on the news organizations' motion to vacate his Feb. 6 order, but he reflised to amend it. The news organization then notified Parker of their intent to appeal to the 5th circuit.

"The judge was furious," Lightfoot recaued with a snlile. "The public, for once, was on our side. They were furious about the gag order. The legal issue was, did we, not being a party to the lawsuit, have a right to challenge [the gag order]?"

On Feb. 26, after the notice of appeal, Parker began a strategic withdrawal from the blanket Feb. 6 order, acknowledging that it had been "inartfully drawn" to encompass all school district On March 1, he issued a revised order gagging only board members and those officials involved in the desegregation plan. The Advocate and WBRZ promptty appealed this order as well, and on March 7, the 5th Circuit granted their motion for an expedited appeal.

"We had sent [copies of] this order to just about every First amendment organization in the country, and the friends of the court [briefs] began flocking in," Lightfoot said. Among those rallying behind the Advocate were the New York Times, Society of Professional Journalists and the First Amendment Center.

Meanwhde, even after a hearing and the 5th Circuit's granting of an expedited appeal, Parker implemented another order on March 8 authorizing the school board to hold "private confidential sessions" to discuss the desegregation plan, a subject not included among the justifications for executive sessions under the Louisiana Pubfic Meetings Act. Within three hours, the news organizations had filed a stay motion with the 5th Circuit, and slightly more than an hour later, the 5th Circifit agreed.

"This was at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon," Lightfoot said in wonderment. The school board then canceled the meetings it had scheduled for that weekend. …