Federal Judge Barbara Lynn And The Observer Go Toe-To-Toe Over A Vague Legal Principle Known As The First Amendment

Well-mannered: Well, that was awkward—one of those embarrassing breach-of-etiquette moments, like when some guy on the bus asks to borrow your comb. You want to be generous, do the polite thing, etc. but geez...

In our case, the uncomfortable moment involved U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, who presided over the recent City Hall corruption trial of former city council member Don Hill, his wife and cronies. After the trial concluded last month, Dallas Observer reporter Sam Merten interviewed one of the jurors who voted to convict Hill and his four co-defendants. Juror Nedra Frazier let slip that there might have been some chitchat among jurors about testimony before deliberations began and jurors might have heard talk about the case outside the jury room. All of which is a no-no.

We posted part of Merten's interview with Frazier on our blog Unfair Park, and Victor Vital, lawyer for Hill's wife, Sheila, used the interview as part of his basis for requesting a new trial for his client. So, Lynn had her clerk call the paper and ask Merten for a copy of his tape of the interview.

We refused, of course.

"Citing to some vague constitutional protection unknown to this Court, the Observer declined to produce the tape to the Court. Because of the Observer's refusal to produce the tape, the Court cannot assess the accuracy of the story," the judge wrote last week in a somewhat snippy footnote to a ruling that partly rejected Vital's motion. She held off ruling on whether Frazier's statement constitutes grounds for granting the motion until she gets a chance to interview Frazier herself.

Listen, judge, we here at the Observer love to be helpful—we're just a big bunch of Boy Scouts—and Lord knows we'd never deliberately do anything to screw up the process of sending a local political hack off to the pokey.

But 'round here we call that "vague constitutional protection" the First Amendment. As our lawyer Steve Suskin explained to Lynn's clerk, if the judge wants our tapes, we at least want a chance to be heard before her on why we think we shouldn't give them up. We wouldn't be the first news organization in Texas to fight a court's request to turn over our work product. We're not in the business of becoming an adjunct to the government.

"The point isn't we don't want anyone to know what is on the tape. There are First Amendment issues that need to be asserted here as a matter of principle," Suskin says.

That's right. We have principles. Who knew?

 
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