First Amendment

Judge orders Florida newspaper to unpublish information on its website

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Updated: A judge has ordered a Florida newspaper to unpublish material posted on its website.

In an unusual ruling (PDF), Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jack Schramm Cox ordered the Palm Beach Post to remove from its website transcripts of taped telephone recordings in which a jailhouse informant bragged about his ability to elicit confessions from fellow inmates, the Post reports.

In his ruling, the judge said that convicted murderer Frederick Cobia has a right to privacy, even behind bars. To protect that right, Cox said it was also necessary to prohibit the newspaper from publishing any more transcripts of taped phone calls Cobia has had from jail since his arrest in 2009.

Cox also prohibited the newspaper, sheriff, public defender, state attorney and “any other person” in the possession of the recordings from “publishing or disclosing them in any way to any third party.”

To comply with the order, the Post removed two paragraphs from the online version of an Oct. 15 story it published about prosecutors’ frequent use of Cobia as a jailhouse informant and allegations that Cobia has received special treatment in exchange for his cooperation. It has also published a note at the top of the original story to explain the situation.

But the paper has since appealed the order, Ars Technica’s Law & Disorder blog reports.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has never upheld a prior restraint on pure speech, nor has [the newspaper’s] counsel found a Florida appellate decision upholding such a restraint,”the Post said in its petition (PDF) to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The court denied a separate motion asking the court to stay the order, but expedited briefing on the matter.

First Amendment lawyers voiced alarm at the judge’s order, which they said is likely to be overturned.

“It’s judicial censorship,” said lawyer Martin Reeder, who represents the Post. “We have a free press in this country, so we don’t normally permit judges to censor what’s in a newspaper.”

“It’s crazy,” First Amendment lawyer Scott Ponce told the Columbia Journalism Review. “My guess is the appellate courts will reverse this in no time at all.”

Cobia has testified in two murder cases in which he claims the defendants confessed to him, according to the Post. He is set to testify in three more cases, and has been listed as a prosecution witness in 23 cases in the last 2½ years.

Updated Dec. 10 to note the Post’s appeal.

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