Las Vegas judge orders Review-Journal and AP not to report on publicly-available autopsy report
On February 9, 2018, a Las Vegas judge ordered the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Associated Press to destroy their copies of an autopsy report of an off-duty police officer killed in a mass shooting.
On January 31, Clark County District Court judge Timothy Williams ordered the Clark County Coroner’s Office to release 58 redacted autopsy reports of the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting to the Review-Journal and AP, which had sued to acquire the records. Following the ruling, the coroner’s office released the autopsy reports to dozens of news organizations. On February 15, The Huffington Post published summaries of all 58 autopsy reports.
The reports that were released to the press were partially redacted and did not include the victims’ names, ages, or other personal and identifying information.
One of the 58 autopsy reports pertained to Charles Hartfield, an off-duty Las Vegas police officer who was killed in the shooting. After the autopsy reports were released to the public, Hartfield’s widow, Veronica Hartfield, sued the Review-Journal and AP, arguing that the autopsy report contained private medical information and should remain confidential.
On February 9, Clark County District Court judge Richard Scotti ruled in favor of Veronica Hartfield, ordering the Review-Journal and the AP to destroy their copies of Hartfield’s autopsy report and to refrain from publishing any details contained in Hartfield’s autopsy report.
Scotti’s order presented a logistical problem for the Review-Journal and the AP. Since the redacted autopsy reports did not include any of the victims’ identifying information, there was no way for the Review-Journal or the AP to tell which report was Hartfield’s.
“The only identifying information in the autopsy reports was gender,” Review-Journal managing editor Glenn Cook told the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Cook said that the judge offered the Review-Journal and AP two options, both of which would have infringed on the news organizations’ First Amendment rights.
“One of the judge’s solutions to this was to hand over all of the information that just been declared public record and was lawfully released, have the Coroner’s Office staff pick out Hartfield’s and promise to give the rest back,” he said. “The most staggering remedy the judge suggested was to allow government employees into our newsroom, go through all of our records, and find that particular report and destroy a legally obtained document.”
“If anywhere in this country, agents of any government entity were allowed to force their way into a newsroom to rifle through documents and seek out a specific record and destroy it, it would be an unparalleled violation of the press freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment,” he said.
Cook said that he distributed a memo to the Review-Journal newsroom outlining company-wide procedures in the event that representatives of the coroner’s office or Las Vegas police attempt to enter the paper’s newsroom to find Hartfield’s autopsy report.
On February 12, the Review-Journal and AP appealed Scotti’s decision, petitioning the Nevada Supreme Court for an emergency writ that would vacate Scotti’s order. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Nevada Press Association filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the news organizations.
“Prior restraints on speech and publication cause immediate, irrevocable, and irreversible harm — therefore they are almost always intolerable under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution … Every minute the district court’s order remains in place is another minute of harm suffered by the Media Parties and the public, which is entitled to reporting on the performance of its public agencies,” the petition for an emergency writ states.
The Nevada Supreme Court granted the emergency writ.
“The question presented is whether the district court’s preliminary injunction order comports with the First Amendment,” Nevada Supreme Court Justice Kristina Pickering wrote in an opinion for the court. “We hold that it does not. While we are deeply sympathetic to the decedent’s family’s privacy concerns, the First Amendment does not permit a court to enjoin the press from reporting on a redacted autopsy report already in the public domain. We therefore grant the writ and vacate the preliminary injunction as an unconstitutional prior restraint.”