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Disney Wants TV Ban for Trial

Coverage: Company says broadcast of case involving aftermath of parking lot robbery would compromise park security.

May 30, 1997|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Court TV, the cable network that took viewers gavel to gavel with O.J. Simpson, has its cameras pointed at yet another gloved defendant: Mickey Mouse.

An Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to decide next week whether to let the network provide live coverage in the case of a former Mouseketeer who is suing the Walt Disney Co. after she and her family were robbed in the Disneyland parking lot.

Billie Jean Matay has charged the theme park with negligence and false imprisonment in connection with that 1995 incident, which is set for trial June 3. Her suit also claims that Disneyland inflicted "emotional distress" on her three grandchildren when they were allowed to see performers remove their character costumes in a backstage area, thus "exposing the children to the reality that the Disney characters were, in fact, make believe."

It's not exactly the trial of the century, but Court TV's coverage would give 29 million households a window into the Magic Kingdom, absent the usual coating of pixie dust.

Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato said the park's main objection to televised coverage is that it would compromise security at the park.

Testimony will focus heavily on confidential details of Disneyland's parking lot procedures. If beamed into millions of homes, that sensitive information would provide a blueprint for thugs to prey on unsuspecting visitors, Brocato said.

"Our security procedures are highly confidential and for the protection of our guests," Brocato said. "We have to be able to withhold that information."

Thus Disney is working to persuade Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard Luesebrink to seal court records, close the courtroom to the public and press "where necessary," and ban TV cameras from the civil proceedings.

A lawsuit that was fodder for late night talk show comedians when it was first filed is suddenly raising serious concerns about a company's right to secrecy versus 1st Amendment freedom.

"Big companies like Disney don't like these kinds of events publicized," said Guylyn Cummins, attorney for Court TV. "They definitely don't want evidence of any crimes getting out to the public, which is all the more reason why the public is entitled to know."

Court TV, which is managed by Time Warner Inc., plans to broadcast live daytime coverage of the trial, which is expected to last three to five days, according to Court TV spokeswoman Lynn Rosenstrach.

Additionally, the trial network plans prime-time updates and may even feature the case on a nightly segment hosted by Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran.

"We've covered more than 500 trials and we've never seen anything like it," said Rosenstrach, explaining Court TV's interest in the case. "That a crime took place at Disneyland, which everyone perceives as a safe fantasy world, makes it stand out. The added twist that the children were allegedly traumatized from seeing make-believe characters disrobe makes it potentially more interesting for viewers."

In court documents, Disney asserts that Matay's grandchildren, who ranged in age from 5 to 11 at the time of the robbery, would be subjected to "undue notoriety" from TV coverage. Disney likewise contends that Court TV is really only interested in the most sensational aspect of the case: the allegations that headless Disney characters shattered the fantasy for those children.

Rules passed in the wake of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial give California judges wide latitude to ban cameras from their courtrooms. Still, Luesebrink indicated in a hearing last week that he is leaning toward allowing Court TV to cover the proceedings, though perhaps with some restrictions.

Getting court records sealed could prove much harder for Disney, which would need to provide "compelling" evidence to sway the judge, according to Los Angeles media attorney Kelli Sager, who has represented Court TV in the past but has no involvement with this case.

And convincing Luesebrink to close the courtroom for even a portion of the trial will border on the impossible, given the constitutional right of the press and public to be there, she said. Such an extreme measure is typically reserved for matters of national security--not parking lot security--Sager observed.

"There is absolutely no basis for closing a courtroom simply because one of the parties doesn't want the public to know what's going on," she said. "People who want courts closed and cameras turned off are always dragging out the parade of horribles, talking about the catastrophes that await. By and large, it's hyperbole that doesn't have any basis in fact."

Matay and her attorney have raised no objections to televised coverage of the trial.

Matay was a member of the 24-member Mouseketeer entertainment troupe that performed at the 1955 opening of Disneyland and occasionally on "The Mickey Mouse Club" television series.

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