On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times was ordered by a federal judge to remove information from an article about the plea agreement between prosecutors and a Glendale, CA police detective who is accused of working with the Mexican mafia.
The plea deal in question was supposed to be kept confidential, but was accidentally filed on PACER, the online database of federal court documents. Times reporters found the documents and reported on them, as journalists do. But, in response to a request from the defendant John Saro Balian’s lawyer, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter ordered the paper to remove the information regarding the deal.
In a classic “newspaper writing about itself” piece, the Times describes its acquiescence to the order and its disagreement with the decision.
In response to the order from U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, The Times revised the article to eliminate information about the sealed document. The newspaper intends to contest the order.
“We believe that once material is in the public record, it is proper and appropriate to publish it if it is newsworthy,” said Norman Pearlstine, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Kelli Sager, an attorney representing The Times, said the 1st Amendment includes a strong presumption against government actions that prevent someone from speaking or publishing information.
“Typically, courts take into account if information was already published. Where it is no longer secret, the point of the restraining order is mooted,” Sager said. “To order a publication to claw it back doesn’t even serve the interest that may be intended.”
This is a good point. If the article was published in print, removing the information from the online version does nothing to stop it from spreading out in the world. Even if it wasn’t, anyone can find cached versions of webpages that would contain the removed information. It’s hard to think of a practical reason behind this decision—and the judge didn’t even attempt to provide one.
Balian, who was once the Glendale Police Department’s spokesman, pled guilty on Saturday to lying about his links with organized crime, accepting a bribe, and obstructing justice, according to the times. He will be sentenced in September.