Restricting access to court records in the Aurora movie theater shooting case would “serve no constructive purpose” and significantly impair the public’s understanding of issues of national importance involving violence and mental health, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued Wednesday in a letter co-signed by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
The letter to Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos A. Samour, Jr., also signed by the Colorado Press Association, is in response to a motion filed last week by attorneys for suspect James Holmes that asks the court to seal all transcripts of proceedings in the case and to remove access to most pleadings from the “Cases of Interest” section of the court’s website, which gives the public direct access to court documents. The defendant’s motion, which asserts that easy access to pleadings in the case jeopardizes Holmes’ right to a fair trial, also asks for suppression of the register of actions.
“Though the defense is concerned about ‘extensive media coverage,’ their proposals are likely to have the opposite effect than the one they desire,” the letter states. “The public will still want to read about the case and the underlying policy issues. If accurate information from court filings is not readily available, the risk arises that people will learn about the case through rumor, gossip, and speculation.
“Misinformation would be more harmful to defendant’s constitutional rights than accurately reported information. The court can address an individual topics that could warrant sealing on an item-by-item basis when they arise, and not by a wholesale restriction on access to all transcripts and filings.”
The letter says the “public interest at stake here is profound” because the Aurora theater shooting and other recent mass shootings have prompted a national dialogue on issues such as requiring mental-health background checks before gun purchases and the effectiveness of mental health systems in the United States. “These issues are not just local but national in scope. However, the proposed restrictions severely limit the ability of out-of-state reporters to effectively report on them and of members of the public to understand the court process.”
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