The executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press told U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch yesterday that his protective order sealing Mobil Oil Corp. documents in a libel case against The Washington Post was violating the First Amendment and inhibiting "the public's right to be informed of the proceedings."
Jack Landau told the judge, "There has to be a compelling state interest for any secrecy in the court."
But Gasch, who imposed the protective order to protect the oil company's economic interests in the $50 million libel case brought by Mobil president William P. Tavoulareas and his son, Peter, against the newspaper, said that "many more documents have been read in this case than in most cases."
Landau vociferously protested the judge's remark, saying that reporters covering the trial "have an interest in those documents" without asking anyone's permission to look at them.
"We cannot have people pawing over those documents," the judge said, pointing to the hefty stack of evidence already submitted in the nine-day-old trial.
As Landau continued to argue, Gasch looked at a deputy U.S. marshal and said, "Mr. Marshal, get ready.
"Don't interrupt the court," Gasch sternly admonished Landau.
At issue is the release of Mobil documents that have been used by lawyers for both the Tavoulareases and The Post in trying to prove their respective cases. Judah Best, one of the attorneys representing the oil company, said that about 20 of the estimated 80 documents already in evidence fall under the protective order.
Four reporters have joined with the committee in asking Gasch to rescind his earlier order.
Gasch's order also allowed Mobil a 24-hour review period before the public release of the daily transcript of the trial, but Best said no portion of the transcript has been sealed and offered to lift that restriction.
Gasch said he would rule on the Reporters Committee request at a later time.