The Supreme Court yesterday revived a California law that gives journalists and others access to police records but forbids their release to companies wanting the information for commercial purposes.
By a 7 to 2 vote, the justices reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the law violated commercial free-speech rights. Although the high court majority largely sidestepped the First Amendment issue at the crux of the case, the dissenting justices argued that the court was wrong to permit discrimination between who may and may not obtain the names and addresses of people arrested and their victims.
The 1996 California law allows police to give arrest information to people with "a scholarly, journalistic, political or governmental purpose" or to licensed private investigators, but it requires recipients to promise that they will not use it "directly or indirectly to sell a product or service." The law was prompted by concerns for the privacy of arrestees and victims in the face of possible solicitations from lawyers, drug abuse programs and driving schools, among others.
The statute was immediately challenged by United Reporting Publishing Corp., a private publishing service that sells the names and addresses of recently arrested individuals to lawyers, insurance companies and other businesses.
In his opinion for the court yesterday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that the dispute does not invoke free-speech concerns but rather tests only a limitation of access to government records. He said United Reporting Publishing Corp. is effectively a conduit of information rather than a "speaker."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added in a concurring statement, signed by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer, that "if states were required to choose between keeping proprietary information to themselves and making it available without limits, states might well choose the former option. . . . [S]ociety's interest in the free flow of information might argue for upholding laws like the one at issue in this case rather than imposing an all-or-nothing regime under which 'nothing' could be the state's easiest response."
Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented in Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Corp.