9th Circuit partially backs 2 newspaper publishers

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press writes on a fascinating story involving the late-night arrest of the publishers of an Arizona alternative weekly newspaper, controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and what a dissenting U.S. Court of Appeals judge calls a “sordid tale of abuse of public office.”

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last week revived, in part, a civil rights lawsuit that the publishers of the Phoenix New Times had filed against Arpaio, a special prosecutor hired at Arpaio’s request, and other public officials.

The publishers, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, claim that their First Amendment rights were violated when they were arrested for printing information contained in subpoenas sent to the newspaper. The subpoenas were issued after the Phoenix New Times printed Arpaio’s residential address in reports detailing the sheriff’s real-estate transactions. In response, Arpaio investigated the newspaper to determine whether it had violated an Arizona law barring “publication of personal information of peace officers, judges and others if the publication would pose a threat to the individual.”

Lacey and Larkin contend the subpoenas were issued not as part of a legitimate criminal investigation, but in an effort to chill First Amendment-protected speech.

A majority of the panel of judges reviewing the appeal dismissed Arpaio as a defendant, holding he is protected from liability by qualified immunity. However, the court said the publishers’ suit could proceed against the special prosecutor Arpaio hired.

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