LOS ANGELES (CN) – A union lawsuit claiming the LA Times illegally used confidential information for a series about the hiring of sheriff’s deputies with histories of misconduct fails under the First Amendment, an appeals court ruled.
In late 2013, the Times published an investigative series called “Behind the Badge” about dozens of problem applicants hired by the sheriff’s department from the Office of Public Safety.
The Times reported that 188 applicants to the department had been rejected for other law enforcement jobs, 29 successful applicants were fired or asked to resign from their previous jobs, and that 15 officers had attempted to manipulate the county polygraph examinations.
Articles included photographs of officers, as well as the private and confidential information they had handed over during the county’s background checks.
The checks included information on prescription or illegal drug use, criminal records, medical and psychological examinations, Social Security numbers and financial records, according to court filings .
Two years ago, Association for Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies sought an injunction against Los Angeles Times Communications claiming that Times journalist Robert Faturechi had illegally obtained the confidential records.
The newspaper responded with an anti-SLAPP motion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After LA Superior Court Michelle Rosenblatt granted the motion in October 2013, the union appealed.
In an order published on Wednesday, California’s Second Appellate District ruled that the Times’ news reporting was protected speech and that the “illegal conduct” exception to California’s anti-SLAPP law did not apply.
“As the trial court correctly observed, Association for Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies has presented no admissible evidence that Faturechi or anyone else at the Times stole anything,” Judge Anne Egerton wrote for the three-judge panel.
An injunction based on the union’s concerns over officer privacy would be an unconstitutional prior restraint under the First Amendment, she added.
The union “cited no case permitting the kind of injunction it seeks here, to restrain a newspaper from publishing news articles on a matter of public concern: the qualifications of applicants for jobs as law enforcement officers,” and “cited no case because there is no such case,” Egerton wrote.
“For more than 100 years, federal and state courts have refused to allow the subjects of potential news reports to stop journalists from publishing reports about them,” she said, noting that it would be up to individual deputies to take legal action for libel or invasion of privacy.
The court also found no abuse of discretion in the objections the Superior Court overruled or sustained at trial.
Egerton, assigned from the LA Superior Court, said the Times can recover the costs of the appeal.
Judges Patti Kitching and Richard Aldrich concurred.
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