LATimes_prior restraint_121318

Los Angeles County judge orders reporters not to publish courtroom photographs

January 15, 2019

On Sept. 26, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gustavo N. Sztraicher ordered journalists not to publish images taken during the arraignment hearing of Ramon Escobar, who was charged with the murders of multiple homeless people in Southern California.

According to court documents, Sztraicher gave permission to journalists from The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and a television news station to document the proceedings after hearing no objections. However, once reporters began taking photographs, an attorney for Escobar raised an objection, citing an “identification issue.”

Although photographs of Escobar had already been released and published by media outlets, the objection was sustained by Sztraicher, who then ordered reporters to stop taking photos and video. He also ordered a sketch artist to stop drawing.

Dan Laidman, an attorney representing The Times and the AP, provided documents that show the journalists were unsure if the court had simply halted further photography or had prohibited publishing images already taken. Journalists, including Times reporters Gina Ferazzi and James Queally, asked the judge for further instruction. 

“When journalists pressed for clarification, the judge ruled that the publication of any images, videos or sketches of Escobar from the court hearing would be considered a violation of a court order,” The Times reported.

At a hearing the following day, Laidman argued the order was “flatly unconstitutional” and asked that it be vacated, noting the Supreme Court has never upheld a prior restraint.

“The Times understands that this Court issued its prior restraint because of concerns about an unspecified ‘identification’ issue concerning Defendant, and out of concern for his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. But these interests simply do not justify a prior restraint here,” Laidman wrote in the court brief. “The September 26 Order is at odds with the basic purpose of the First Amendment - namely, to prevent the government from imposing prior restraints against the press. […] The Times, therefore, respectfully requests that the Court vacate the Order immediately.”

Escobar’s attorney argued that because Sztraicher’s permission was granted verbally and not through written order, the photographs were obtained unlawfully.

Sztraicher denied this argument, acknowledging journalists had obtained prior verbal approval, and vacated his order.

“Defense attorneys often argue that publishing their client’s image before trial could improperly sway witnesses, … Once photographs have been taken legally, however, a judge typically can’t bar news outlets from publishing them,” The Times reported following the hearing.

The AP also published on the successful free speech defense.

“The order should never have been issued in the first place,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told the AP. “I’m glad the court saw the light of day.”

In a statement emailed to the Freedom of the Press Foundation about the decision, The Times’ Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine noted how the judge’s courtroom ruling put the news outlet in a difficult position.

“It is distressing that once again the Los Angeles Times needs to resort to litigation to preserve our rights under the 1st Amendment,” Pearlstine said.

Earlier in the year, The Times filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals to rescind a restraining order against publishing information made public in the criminal case of former narcotics detective John Balian. That order was also reversed after a day.

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].

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