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Online news site wins First Amendment victory

The U.S. federal judiciary backs off its plans to bar public records from APBnews.com, marking a First Amendment victory for online publications.

The U.S. federal judiciary today backed off its plans to bar public records from news site APBnews.com, marking a First Amendment victory for online publications.

The decision caps a three-month standoff between APB executives and some of the nation's most powerful judges over whether financial disclosure records should be posted on the Web.

A six-page letter last month from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, denouncing the move to block public records, may have encouraged the judiciary committee to rethink its plans.

"This is a significant victory," said Mark Sauter, APB's chief operating officer. "This case will now make these important government servants more accountable to the public. Many civil libertarians and many plain old citizens who have to appear before the judges should be excited about this decision."

Despite the win, APB is not withdrawing its lawsuit against the judges citing other questionable practices such as forcing news organizations to pay for public documents.

In the meantime, the newsroom staff is ready to scan onto their Web site more than 12,500 pages of financial disclosure records for every active and semiretired federal judge.

The judges had been apprehensive about releasing the information, noting that the Internet's far-reaching readership may present security risks.

Courts in general have been slow to embrace the Net, but many public records, such as federal court cases, lists of sexual offenders and, in some counties, divorce records and other civil law matters, can be easily found online.

APB's troubles with the judiciary began in October when the newsgroup asked for financial disclosure records of 1,600 active and semiretired federal judges and magistrates.

The request was denied even though similar documents had been released to print news reporters who had done investigative reports about judges who had ruled on cases involving companies in which they owned stock, presenting an apparent conflict of interest.

APB then sued, charging First Amendment violations.

The move toward making public records more accessible may have begun in 1996, when President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act. Under the act, federal records must be available to the masses once it becomes public.

In his letter, Justice Rehnquist told the Financial Disclosure Committee it did not have the authority to block APB's request for documents.

"There are a large number of judges who feel strongly about security issues raised by financial disclosure," he wrote. "But I also note that although Judicial Conference Committees fulfill a number of roles for the conference, they generally are not rule-making or policy-making bodies."

While acknowledging that the public records statute allows for judges to edit information from disclosure forms because of security risks, Rehnquist noted that it was not an excuse to withhold the reports entirely.

"It is to be expected that closer public scrutiny will be applied when judges decide issues affecting judges," he said. "We have already seen evidence of this in editorial commentary, and I suspect it will increase. Moreover, the fact that officials from the Executive and Legislative branches must also file disclosure reports makes the committee's position more difficult to defend."

Those words were taken to heart when the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts met this week to review, among other items, the APB request.

APB executives were excited today upon discovering they were the subject of such an important memo.

"It's ironic for us to think that only 18 months ago we were sitting in our living room putting together this new company and now to see that the chief justice is mentioning us in a memo," Sauter said. "Maybe this says something about how important the Internet really is."