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Justice and the free press

The American free press and the public were equally well served by a US Supreme Court ruling this week that struck down a mandatory state law in Massachusetts that had slammed shut courtroom doors to reporters. Besides being an important decision in its own right, the 6-to-3 ruling draws renewed attention to the whole question of voluntary guidelines agreed to by press, court, and bar associations - and the possibility that such guidelines could actually be used to close off court proceedings to reporters.

Because of the constitutional questions involved in the ongoing debate over First Amendment rights guaranteeing a free press and Sixth Amendment rights guaranteeing a fair trial, the American public would seem to have ample reasons for a careful understanding of this latest decision, as well as the issue of the voluntary guidelines.

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* This week's ruling by the Supreme Court held that states cannot compel judges to automatically exclude the press and public from a courtroom when the victim is a minor and is testifying in a sex-assault case. The Massachusetts law in question ordered judges to close off their courtrooms whenever victims under the age of 18 were testifying. The Boston Globe challenged the law as unconstitutional - a position that was upheld by the high court. Justice Brennan , writing for the majority, held that the rights of the victim to privacy should be decided on a ''case-by-case basis.''

The court, therefore, reaffirmed its crucial decision in a Richmond, Virginia , case two years ago that the press and public have a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings. In a footnote in this week's Massachusetts decision, the high court also held that the press has a right of standing to challenge the closing of a courtroom to reporters.

* The press-bar-bench guidelines. Some 28 states currently have voluntary guidelines covering the reporting of judicial proceedings. The current controvery over the guidelines stems from a ruling in a Washington State decision where the trial judge unilaterally made the guidelines mandatory and required reporters to sign a form indicating that they understood the guidelines and would be barred from the court if they did not sign. After a legal challenge by one newspaper, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the judge's ruling. This past May 17 the US Supreme Court denied a writ to review the Washington case - which means that the lower court ruling stands.

Because of the Washington State decision, it is fitting that all such state guidelines be reviewed to ensure that they cannot be used against the press in future cases. That would mean making certain that the guidelines contain a clause stating that they will not be used in such a way as to impose prior restraint - or conditional access to reporters seeking to cover court proceedings.

What is important to recall in all this is that press access to court proceedings is absolutely crucial in protecting the public interest. For reporters, that means that the right to gather news becomes as vital as the right to disseminate or publish news.

And of course, it must also be added that such rights impose very real responsibilities on the press to ensure that their reporting is undertaken only with the utmost regard for the rights of all parties involved in judicial proceedings.

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