Iowa Newspaper Prevails in Prior-Restraint Case

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A week after he barred an Iowa newspaper from reporting on public court records, a justice of the state Supreme Court lifted his controversial order Tuesday.

The dispute stems from a complaint that attorney Jaysen McCleary brought against the Des Moines Register and its reporter, Clark Kauffman, to prevent them from publishing information that McCleary included in unrelated court filings.

Though the Polk County District Court sealed some of those documents, which included personal medical and financial information about McCleary, the materials were public when the Register had had access to them.

McCleary appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court when the district court refused on Dec. 7 to give him an injunction that would prevent the Register from publishing anything from the sealed court records.

Last week, Justice David Wiggins opted to put the proceedings on hold pending a hearing.

“Pending further action from this court, the defendants shall not disclose or share (other than with legal counsel) any information in the defendants’ possession that was obtained exclusively from the reports,” Wiggins wrote on Dec. 11, a reference to the now-sealed court documents. (Emphasis in original.)

Represented by Michael Giudicessi of the firm Faegre Baker Daniels, the Register argued in an opposition brief that Justice Wiggins’ order amounted to prior restraint of the press in violation of the First Amendment.

“While characterized as a stay,” the Register argued, “the order functions to restrain the press from disseminating lawfully secured content in advance of publication until further order of this court, if any.”

McCleary meanwhile pressed on for an injunction, saying that the personal information contained in the now-sealed court records are not a “matter of public concern” and that he is a private figure, not a public figure.

Wiggins’ order lifting the stay Tuesday prompted McCleary to petition the Supreme Court this afternoon for review by a three-judge panel.

The attorney said he was disappointed but not surprised by Wiggins’ action.

“I anticipated Justice Wiggins and the full Supreme Court of Iowa to fold under the pressure from the media,” McCleary said in an email. “I intend to petition the U.S. Supreme Court although I’m fully aware of the prospect of obtaining justice is extremely low.”

Des Moines Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter said she was gratified by the court’s action Tuesday. “This order upholds the U.S. Supreme Court’s long recognition that prior restraint on publication would violate the First Amendment,” Hunter echoed these remarks in a story on the Register’s website. “It’s a bedrock constitutional protection that helps guarantee a free press,” she wrote.

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