ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Blocking a made-for-TV movie about a grisly upstate murder constituted prior restraint, a New York appeals court ruled, vacating a temporary restraining order.
After his 2004 conviction for murdering his father with an ax and maiming his mother as they slept, Christopher Porco went from being a suburban Albany college student to serving 50 years to life at a state maximum-security prison.
Just days before Lifetime Entertainment Services was scheduled to air “Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story” in March 2013, Porco filed suit and won a temporary restraining order in Clinton County Supreme Court.
Lifetime, a subsidiary of A+E Networks, portrayed the movie as based on the real-life “fierce mission” of a local police detective – played by “Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack – to prove Porco’s guilt for a crime that shocked the sleepy community of Delmar, N.Y.
Lifetime had the restraining order lifted so the two-hour movie could air as scheduled, and Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department vacated the order on April 17.
“The temporary restraining order issued here constitutes an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech,” Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote for a four-member panel.
Although the prohibition against prior restraint “is not absolute,” courts have held that it can be imposed “only in the most ‘exceptional cases,'” the ruling states.
“Censorship in advance of publication will be constitutionally tolerated only upon ‘a showing on the record that such expression will immediately and irreparably create public injury,'” Peters added.
Porco’s case meanwhile constitutes “a matter of significant public interest,” according to the ruling.
Indeed, pretrial publicity led prosecutors to try Porco 100 miles south of Albany in Goshen. Porco maintained his innocence throughout, and his mother, Joan, also defended him. She had lost an eye, among other facial disfigurements in the early morning attack that left her husband, Albany law clerk Peter Porco, dead.
Police meanwhile said Joan had implicated Chris as paramedics worked to save her.
Convicted in 2006, Christopher Porco is incarcerated in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal after his conviction was upheld by New York’s highest court in 2011.
Broadcast of the Porco movie – even if it contained fictionalized or dramatized elements – “would not create the type of imminent and irreversible injury to the public that would warrant the extraordinary remedy of prior restraint,” Peters wrote. “Rather, any alleged harm or injury flowing from the content of the film would be limited to the plaintiff alone.”
Any abuse of free-speech rights allows for court involvement, but “it was constitutionally impermissible under these circumstances to forbid that speech prior to its actual expression,” Peters wrote.
Justices Elizabeth Garry, Robert Rose and John Egan Jr. concurred.
Porco argued pro se.
Representing Lifetime were David Schulz of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz in New York City and Michael Grygiel of Greenberg Traurig in Albany.
George Freeman of Jenner & Block in New York City argued for Home Box Office Inc. and other amici curiae.
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