A union representing Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies Tuesday unsuccessfully sought a court order to stop the Los Angeles Times from publishing information from officers' background screenings.
The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs filed an emergency motion against The Times and a Times reporter Tuesday morning, alleging that the reporter unlawfully possessed background investigation files containing personal information of about 500 deputies.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joanne O'Donnell denied the union's motion, writing that the union failed to present "the evidence most critical to the showing of irreparable harm or immediate danger."
"The court declines to issue [an order] imposing a prior restraint on defendants' free speech based on the speculative hearsay testimony of anonymous witnesses," she wrote.
Attorneys for The Times had argued that prior restraint, or restricting speech before publication, was a grave infringement of the 1st Amendment. The attorneys said prior restraint has been considered unconstitutional by courts except in extraordinary circumstances such as troop movements in wartime or to "suppress … information that would set in motion a nuclear holocaust."
The Times' lawyers contended that deputies' privacy rights or speculation about threats to their safety could not justify a violation of free-speech rights.
The newspaper's attorneys also wrote that the union had no basis for seeking an emergency order, noting that The Times has published other stories based on information from employment records in the past.
The Times has reported since last October on the department's hiring of employees who had personal ties to top officials or Sheriff Lee Baca despite histories of violence and brushes with the law.
In August, the Sheriff's Department announced in a news release that it had launched a criminal investigation into an apparent leak of personnel information to a Times reporter.
O'Donnell, in her ruling, agreed that the union was late in its motion, writing that "any exigency appears to be of plaintiff's own making."
Lawyers for the deputies' union said they learned only a week and a half earlier about the information The Times had and said background investigation files included information about deputies' spouses and people living in the same house, as well as juvenile criminal records.
"We don't have any desire to stop them from writing an article about … how bad the Sheriff's Department is," attorney Elizabeth Gibbons said. "Our concern is protecting financial and private information of deputies."
She said that even though the union was unaware of what information the paper intended to publish, the Times reporter "hasn't said he isn't going to publish it."
Kelli Sager, an attorney for The Times, called the union's legal move "the latest attempt by [the union] to control what information the public has about its law enforcement officers."
"We are gratified that the court recognized that there was no basis for this unconstitutional prior restraint," she said in an emailed statement.