High court refuses several First Amendment cases

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday turned aside several appeals of First Amendment cases.

The high court refused to consider:

  • An effort by an Idaho man to revive his invasion-of-privacy claim against a newspaper that published part of a 40-year-old court file.
  • An appeal by the city of Chicago to overturn a lower court ruling allowing a hockey fan to sell his highly critical book about the Chicago Blackhawks owner outside the team’s stadium.
  • Reinstating a free-speech lawsuit brought by a former California high school salutatorian who was barred from proselytizing during his 1999 graduation speech.
  • A Florida judge’s appeal of a 5-2 decision in January by the Florida Supreme Court, which found her guilty of unethical conduct.
  • An appeal by an Indiana attorney who was reprimanded by that state’s high court for a comment included in a court brief.

Idaho

The justices refused to hear an effort to revive the invasion-of-privacy claim an Idaho man filed against a newspaper for publishing part of a 40-year-old court file that said — perhaps inaccurately — that he had a homosexual affair with his cousin.

The high court, acting without comment, let stand a unanimous Idaho Supreme Court ruling last winter that The Idaho Statesman was constitutionally protected from the damage claim of Fred Uranga.

Uranga’s attorney, John Runft, acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case was expected, given the small fraction of case reviews it grants.

“Obviously, Mr. Uranga’s disappointed,” he said.

Uranga sued after the newspaper’s 1995 publication of a story recounting the 1955 Boys of Boise homosexuality scandal. The paper included a photograph of a handwritten statement by one of the men eventually convicted. Melvin Dir’s statement said he had an affair with a man who later killed himself because of the scandal. Dir’s statement also said he had an affair with his cousin. Fred Uranga was the cousin, but Uranga’s name never appeared in the story.

The federal district and appellate courts threw out Uranga’s claim, citing First Amendment protections, before the state Supreme Court initially reinstated his suit.

But the state’s highest court then agreed to reconsider the case and eight months later reversed itself and unanimously backed the newspaper.

The Idaho justices held that there was no invasion of privacy with the publication of information from a court record that is open to the public, no matter how old that record is.

Statesman officials did not immediately comment, but at the time of that state court decision, Executive Editor Carolyn Washburn said it was important that “the media or anyone else in the public who uses public records can have comfort in using what is in the public domain. The media are not the only ones who use public records.”

The 1995 story on what the newspaper called one of the nation’s “most infamous homosexual witch hunts” was published in the midst of a statewide debate over a proposed ballot initiative banning state or local laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination. The paper called the 1955 scandal a cautionary tale.

Uranga claimed the information in the pictured statement was false and had never been introduced in any proceeding as evidence. He demanded a correction, but The Statesman declined, offering instead either to publish Uranga’s rebuttal or explain his position along with a statement that the newspaper had no opinion on the truth of the court document.

Uranga declined both and sued.

The case is Uranga v. Federal Publications, Inc.

Illinois
The justices let stand a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld hockey fan Mark G. Weinberg’s right to sell his highly critical book about Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz outside the team’s stadium.

The city of Chicago had sought to have at least a Supreme Court hearing on the case.

Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League had filed friend-of-the-court briefs also arguing for a hearing.

The city and the sports leagues had contended the appellate ruling that had overturned a 1995 peddling ordinance could allow terrorists bent on wreaking mayhem at a crowded Chicago sports event to disguise themselves as vendors.

The ordinance bans peddling of any merchandise, except newspapers, on public right of way within 1,000 feet of the United Center. It also requires anyone who wants to sell merchandise on private property within the area to hold a valid peddler’s license.

City officials had said the ordinance was passed to deal with congestion problems. The city also restricts peddling outside other arenas.

But the appeals court ruled that the ordinance was an impermissible prior restraint on free speech.

In December 2000, Weinberg began selling his 156-page, softcover book — Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz’s Greed, Corruption, and the Betrayal of Blackhawk Fans — for $13 outside the United Center.

Two months later, Chicago police ordered Weinberg to stop, and he filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The case is City of Chicago v. Weinberg.

California
A former Pleasanton, Calif., high school salutatorian who was barred from proselytizing during his 1999 graduation speech failed to persuade the Supreme Court yesterday to reinstate his free-speech case.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February upheld a federal judge who had dismissed the Amador Valley High senior Nicholas Lassonde’s suit. The San Francisco-based appeals court said schools are constitutionally barred from endorsing religion.

The Supreme Court declined to review that 9th Circuit decision.

The appeals court had ruled unanimously that “permitting a proselytizing speech at a public school’s graduation ceremony would amount to coerced participation in a religious practice.”

Allowing Lassonde to preach his Christian faith, the appeals court added, could force students to “feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend high school graduation.”

The case is Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District.

Florida
The high court without comment refused to hear a Florida judge’s appeal of her public reprimand and $50,000 fine for showing a “prosecutor’s bias” by promising to support police and crime victims in her election campaign.

Escambia County Judge Pat Kinsey had challenged a 5-2 decision in January by the Florida Supreme Court, which found her guilty of unethical conduct that included calling criminal defendants “thugs” and “punks” during her 1998 campaign.

The state court ordered the reprimand and $50,000 fine.

Her husband and lawyer, Roy Kinsey, had argued in papers filed with the high court that the reprimand violated her First Amendment right of free speech. He cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, that struck down a Minnesota judicial-ethics rule for that reason.

Neither the judge nor her husband returned telephone calls to their home and offices seeking comment.

The state Supreme Court’s majority opinion concluded that free speech must be balanced with the need to preserve the judiciary’s independence and the public’s perception of impartiality.

Pat Kinsey won the election with 64% of the vote, ousting incumbent Bill Green, who then filed a complaint against her.

The Florida justices found her campaign, which included photos of police officers in her brochures, left the impression she favored law enforcement. That might make the public believe she would not deliver fair justice, the court ruled.

The two dissenting justices cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Minnesota case, but the majority wrote that Florida’s rules were more narrowly drawn.

The case is Kinsey v. Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Indiana
The high court turned away an appeal by lawyer Michael A. Wilkins, who cited the First Amendment in contesting his reprimand by the Indiana Supreme Court.

Wilkins’ trouble began when he submitted a brief with a footnote citing a Michigan lawyer’s criticism of a state Court of Appeals ruling. The Michigan lawyer had called the ruling intellectually dishonest.

In November 2002, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended Wilkins from practicing law for 30 days. According to the The Indianapolis Star, the state high court then put the suspension on hold, and last February reduced the punishment to a reprimand.

The newspaper reported that the court had “reduced Wilkins’ punishment because he characterized the remark as ‘inappropriate[,]‘ … offered to apologize to the appellate judges and has a well-established record of honesty and integrity.”

As for his client’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Wilkins’ lawyer, Dan Kelley, told the newspaper: “It was a long shot.”

The case is Wilkins v. Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Indiana.

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