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SPJ joins amicus brief opposing Johnson V. New York courtroom restrictions


For Immediate Release:

David Cuillier, SPJ President, 520-248-6242, spjdave@yahoo.com
Ellen Kobe, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, ekobe@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists has signed on to an amicus brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that supports open courtrooms for the press and the public.

The brief filed in the case Johnson v. New York asks the Supreme Court to hear a case involving a criminal defendant’s challenge of what is essentially an automatic closure of courtrooms in New York City when undercover officers testify.

In Johnson v. New York, a New York trial court judge closed the courtroom to everyone except defendant Martin Johnson’s family during the testimony of an undercover police officer, removing the testimony from public scrutiny. Johnson was being tried on drug charges.

The court made no on-the-record determination regarding the need for closure, despite decades of cases under the First Amendment and the common law holding that criminal proceedings are presumptively open to the public absent 1) specific findings on the record demonstrating a compelling need for closure and 2) an analysis that the closure is no broader than necessary to protect that interest, the New York Court of Appeals held that the closure here was appropriate because the analysis could be “implied” from the court’s decision to exclude the public.

The brief does not argue that all officers must testify in an open courtroom, but that there must be a meaningful case-by-case determination on the record as to whether closure is appropriate.

“There is a First Amendment right of public access to criminal trials,” the brief says. “This right finds its roots in the need of the American people to hold their government, including the courts, accountable. And the interest is even more profound in areas that are the subject of important public discussion and debate, such as drug policy. It is only through transparency that the people can learn public policy is formed and executed.”

The brief walks through the historical presumption of access to criminal proceedings and stresses why open courtrooms in cases like this are vital to the press and the public.

As a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases. Most recently, SPJ joined briefs encouraging the Supreme Court to interpret statutory immunities broadly and to acknowledge that the NSA’s collection of American Civil Liberties Union telephone records violates the First and Fourth Amendments.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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