New York-based APBNews.com, which focuses on crime and court stories, wants to post on its Web site financial disclosure statements of all U.S. federal judges. The judges, however, fear the Web's far-reaching readership may present security risks.
In a statement released this afternoon, the 15-member Committee on Financial Disclosure of the Judicial Conference said it would not release the 12,580 pages of documents to APB because it violates ethics rules. The rules require judges to be notified when someone requests a disclosure report.
"Internet publication would obviously prevent such notice and would obstruct Congress' intent to permit a security determination prior to release of a judge's financial disclosure report,'' the committee said in its statement.
The dogfight between APBNews.com and the judiciary will likely heat up as the online news service now prepares for legal action.
"I think this is a seminal case," Sauter said. "Society has to come to grips with the fact that the Internet is not only a legitimate, but a superior means of providing important government documents."
Posting public records online is not a new idea. Already, federal court files are available on the Internet, as are lists of sex offenders and political campaign disclosures. In some counties, divorce records and other civil law cases can be found with a simple click of the mouse.
The move toward making public records more accessible may have begun in 1996, when President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which states that once a federal record becomes public, it must be released to the masses.
But APB's struggle touches on a growing concern over the spread of sensitive information around the world through the Net, which some say could create security challenges.
Last year, when the Environmental Protection Agency wanted to post chemical manufacturers' "worst case" accident scenarios online, the FBI balked, and some federal lawmakers moved quickly to try and ban the proposal. The FBI said it was worried that terrorists would use the information to target towns housing chemical plants.
Larry Makinson, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., agrees that not all public documents should go up on the Web.
"When these laws were written about disclosure, they were written with the idea that documents were stored in dusty filing cabinets that were never opened," Makinson said. "Maybe we need to reassess whether certain information should be public. Anything that threatens national security or presents a real personal danger should probably not be accessible online."
He said he does not believe that the federal judges' concerns warrant restricting APB from gathering financial disclosure records, however.
"This is more of a matter of the judiciary having thinner skin than politicians," said Makinson, whose group posts names of organizations and individual political campaign donors on its Web site. "This is more of an embarrassment factor; I don't think an embarrassment factor should decide what goes on the Web."
Die-hard civil libertarians see no reason to cut off public information from online users.
"The rules don't change suddenly because of the Internet," said Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which may support APB's case as a friend of the court. "They can't single out who does the requesting just because they don't like a particular news organization. The rules are the same for everybody."
In some ways, this battle brings a new twist to an old story.
Documents have for years been available to the press and the public, but gaining access to them was rarely easy, especially when a request involved a great deal of information about many public figures, as APB's does.
"There was always tension between availability versus accessibility," said Mark Zaid, APB's attorney. "But the Internet has thrown this equation into a murky environment."
Zaid said he plans to submit his challenge to the Committee on Financial Disclosure of the Judicial Conference sometime this week. A federal district judge will then be assigned to preside over the hearing.
APB's troubles with the judiciary began in October, when the news group asked for the financial disclosure statements of 1,600 active and semiretired federal judges and magistrates. APB planned to put all 12,580 pages of the documents online.
The documents have been released to reporters in the past. Joe Stephens, who worked at the Kansas City Star and is now at the Washington Post, has published a series of articles over the past two years about federal judges who have ruled on cases involving companies in which they owned stock, presenting an apparent problem involving conflict of interest.
APB's request was apparently ready for delivery when U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch of Florida barred the release.
"The judges haven't told us anything about any specific security concerns," APB's Sauter said. "It appears to be a reaction to the general issue of documents being posted on the Internet."