Protecting the Public’s First Amendment RightsFebruary 8, 2021
When the State of Connecticut passed a law that barred access to criminal trials of juveniles being tried as adults for violent felonies such as murder, armed robbery and rape, the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper, called on Hinckley Allen for help.
Recognizing the significance of this matter to the press and the public, the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press teamed up with Hinckley Allen in bringing the case to court. The legal team convinced Connecticut’s federal district court that such records and cases should not automatically be sealed and that the confidentiality provisions in the state’s Juvenile Transfer Act violated the Courant’s First Amendment rights.
The Reporters Committee and Hinckley Allen then successfully defended that decision on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where the three-judge panel upheld the lower court’s decision. Although the state certainly has a compelling interest in protecting the privacy of juveniles, the court found that the law was not sufficiently narrow in its terms so that it violated the Courant’s First Amendment rights. According to the court, “Trials should be presumed open to the public in order to . . . promote public confidence in the criminal justice system. Only when the need for privacy outweighs the public’s interest in open proceedings should that presumption be waived.”
The decision reaffirms the importance of public access to criminal proceedings. As stated by William Fish, the Hinckley Allen partner who represented the Hartford Courant: “We are very pleased that the Second Circuit upheld Judge Shea’s strong decision finding this statute unconstitutional. It is a strong reminder to government officials that laws must be consistent with the public’s constitutional right to access court proceedings. Not only did the Second Circuit get it correct, it did so forcefully in response to the excellent work done by the Reporters Committee in the case.”
The Hartford Courant was represented by Alexa Talin Millinger and William S. Fish Jr. of Hinckley Allen and Katie Townsend, Legal Director at The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The defendants were represented by the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General.