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Judge rejects bid to stop Times' publication of deputies' backgrounds

The court strikes down a union's complaint, saying attorneys did not show publishing the information would cause irreparable harm.

October 09, 2013|By Jill Cowan

A judge on Wednesday rejected an attempt to stop the Los Angeles Times from publishing information found in sheriff's deputies' background screening files.

"You'd have to be blind not to recognize there's tension between privacy, public safety and the 1st Amendment," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michelle R. Rosenblatt said during a hearing on the matter. "There always has been, and there perhaps always will be."

Rosenblatt sided with The Times in striking down a complaint filed by a union representing Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.

Attorneys representing the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs had alleged that 500 files containing personal information were unlawfully obtained. They contended that a Times reporter was illegally in possession of stolen property.

"There's no case law at all that says the receipt of stolen property does not apply to the press," said Elizabeth Gibbons, an attorney for the union.

She added that the legal action's intent was not to stop The Times from writing about the department's hiring practices, but rather to prevent it from disclosing information that violates employees' privacy.

Lawyers for The Times had said that prior restraint, or restricting speech before publication, was a serious infringement of 1st Amendment rights.

"The Times has a right to publish [the] information to the extent that it is newsworthy," said Rochelle Wilcox, who represented The Times. Whether information is newsworthy, she said, falls "within The Times' editorial judgment."

There was no evidence to suggest that a Times reporter had received the information unlawfully, she added.

For the last year, The Times has reported on the department's hiring of employees who had personal ties to top officials, including Sheriff Lee Baca, despite histories of violence or past legal scrapes.

In August, the department announced that it had launched a criminal investigation into the apparent leak of personnel files.

Last month, a judge rejected an emergency motion filed by the deputies union to halt publication of the information found in the files.

On Wednesday, Rosenblatt rejected a legal action that would have permanently blocked The Times from reporting that information.

In her ruling, Rosenblatt said the union had not shown irreparable harm, nor had attorneys provided "any admissible evidence identifying what, if any, confidential documents [The Times has in] its possession."

Wilcox said she was pleased with the ruling, which effectively ends the case unless the union opts to appeal.

"It's the correct result under both federal and state law," she said. "You can't restrain the press from publishing information they lawfully acquire."

She said the paper planned to file a motion to recover attorneys' fees, which it is entitled to recoup under a state statute protecting free speech rights.

Gibbons said later that her clients had not yet decided whether to appeal.

jill.cowan@latimes.com

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