News sites fight to keep spying hearing open

CNET Networks and others say a hearing about AT&T's alleged cooperation in a spying program should remain public.

News organizations are planning to oppose any request from AT&T on Wednesday to keep the public out of a hearing that could explore whether the company illegally cooperated with the National Security Agency.

CNET Networks (publisher of News.com), Wired News, and the California First Amendment Coalition are sending a letter (click for PDF) to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, saying the hearing should remain open because the "surveillance at the heart of the case presents issues of enormous public interest and importance."

On Tuesday, AT&T's attorneys asked the judge (click here for PDF) to close the hearing "during any discussion of its trade secrets or confidential information."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group in San Francisco, filed a class action lawsuit in January, claiming that AT&T illegally cooperated with the Bush administration's secret eavesdropping program. EFF has obtained from a former AT&T employee that it believes buttress its case--but which the telecommunications company says contain trade secrets and proprietary business information.

"Given the tremendous amount of public interest in this case, no part of the proceedings should be closed to the public," said Sharon Le Duy, CNET's general counsel. "We believe it's important to defend our First Amendment right to bear witness to these hearings."

CNET, Wired News and the California First Amendment Coalition have retained attorney Roger Myers of Holme, Roberts & Owen. A second set of media organizations, including the San Jose Mercury News, also is planning to send an attorney--Karl Olson of Levy, Ram & Olson--to the hearing, which is set be held in federal district court in San Francisco.

An attorney for AT&T asked the judge for a "brief telephone conference" on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the mechanics of closing the courtroom. The judge denied the request for a conference call, but AT&T could renew its request during Wednesday's hearing.

The Bush administration has the lawsuit, saying that permitting the suit to proceed could jeopardize "military and state secrets." Wednesday's hearing will address AT&T's motion requesting the return of its documents and EFF's competing request to make them public.

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