Superior Court Judge Merita Hopkins issued a shocking decision yesterday. By stopping WHDH-TV (Channel 7) from reporting on autopsy reports that allegedly show two Boston firefighters killed in an August restaurant blaze had abused drugs and alcohol, Hopkins violated the most basic of First Amendment protections — the protection against prior restraint. (Boston Globe coverage here; Boston Herald coverage here and here.)
The courts — right up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court — have consistently ruled that when a confidential document ends up in the hands of the media, there’s nothing that can be done about it. The legal responsibility is on the keepers of those documents not to release them; the media, by contrast, have no legal obligation not to report on them.
There are many cases I could point to, but consider that of Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter for WJAR-TV (Channel 10) in Providence. A few years ago Taricani broadcast videotapes of an aide to then-mayor Buddy Cianci taking a bribe. The tapes had been sealed by a federal judge, Ernest Torres, and thus it was illegal for anyone to give those tapes to Taricani — a perfect analogy to the situation involving the autopsy reports yesterday.
Taricani was in big trouble with Torres — but not for broadcasting the material. That, the judge made clear, was absolutely protected by the First Amendment. Instead, Torres insisted that Taricani reveal his source, because it was that person, not Taricani, who had violated the law. Taricani refused, and was sentenced to home detention. (The source, later revealed to be defense lawyer Joseph Bevilacqua Jr., was punished as well.)
It could very well be that the journalists who revealed the contents of the autopsy reports in the matter of the Boston firefighters will be pressured to give up their sources as well. Those of us who champion a free press ought to be concerned about that, but at least it’s well-established legal terrain.
Judge Hopkins, on the other hand, ought to be sent to her corner and forced to repeat 50 times: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
More: Here’s the text of Near v. Minnesota, the 1931 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in which prior restraint was deemed a violation of the Constitution in almost all instances. The exceptions — national security, obscenity and incitement — are narrowly drawn, and obviously do not come within a mile of the Boston case.