Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chalk One Up for the Press

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chalk One Up for the Press

Article excerpt

With the media's access to news so constantly under attack, it is reassuring to have a court hold that freedom of the press is more than merely the right to freely publish.

Take a recent court ruling that stated, "The news-gathering activities of the press are also constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, because the 'right to publish the news would be of little value in the absence of sources from which to obtain it.'"

Unlike Judge Lance Ito's comments in the O.J. Simpson case, the court's judgment that "any inhibitions on press coverage . . . 'carry a heavy presumption of an unconstitutional prior restraint'" is a breath of fresh air.

That was not the California trial court speaking, but rather Judge Edward Hofert of the Circuit Court in Chicago. The dispute was not over DNA, but rather access to internal audit reports and other records of the Chicago public schools.

In a well-reasoned approach granting the Chicago Sun-Times access to the Board of Education records, the court first looked at whether the records sought, and the purpose for seeking them, were "a matter of great public importance and concern."

Access was granted solely on First Amendment grounds. Judge Hofert's acceptance that to carry out the intent of the First Amendment, the rights of the press go well beyond just printing a newspaper, is a principle of which other courts should be reminded.

The court found that the "financial condition and viability of the Chicago public schools is undeniably a matter of ... importance to the public," as was "whether a school principal has properly managed and accounted for ... funds, and measures taken by the Board [of Education] to detect, prevent and address any mismanagement or mishandling of school internal account funds."

The internal audit records sought by the Chicago Sun-Times, according to the court, set forth ... irregularities or discrepancies found ... the school principal's specific response ... [and] ... any remedial or corrective action that will be implemented.

"[T]he Sun-Times cannot effectively report on these issues of indisputable public importance if denied access to the Board's internal audit reports" and related records, the opinion reasoned.

In the critical holding of the case, the opinion states: "The Sun-Times' right of access to these records is constitutionally mandated by its First Amendment free press rights to investigate, gather and report on the news."

In reviewing the history and purpose of the First Amendment, the court said, "one of the core purposes of the First Amendment is 'to protect the free discussion of government affairs.'"

The "free press rights" of the First Amendment recognize that newspapers are "essential to ensuring" that "the individual citizen can effectively participate in and contribute to our . …

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