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Victory: Court Ends Prior Restraint Against MuckRock

DEEPLINKS BLOG
June 3, 2016

A court in Seattle has lifted an order that required our client MuckRock to remove documents one of its users obtained from a public records request.

Agreeing with EFF, King County Superior Court Judge William Downing ruled that the previous order amounted to a prior restraint on speech that violated the First Amendment, and rescinded it along with denying plaintiffs’ request to extend it.

The upshot is that MuckRock and its co-founder, Michael Morisy, are no longer prohibited from publishing two documents the court had previously ordered the website to take down.

More than a week ago, several companies sued MuckRock, one of its users, and the city of Seattle after the user filed a public records request seeking information about the city’s smart utility meter program.

Seattle initially released two documents to the requester. By default, MuckRock allows its users to elect to have the documents they receive published to the site after an agency releases them. The documents had been public for more than a month before a company that won the contract for Seattle’s smart meter program obtained the court order requiring MuckRock to de-publish the documents. MuckRock complied with the order.

EFF, along with local counsel Venkat Balasubramani of FOCAL PLLC, represented MuckRock and argued that the order violated the First Amendment in several respects. We also argued that as an online platform, MuckRock was immune from the suit under the Communications Decency Act because the documents were posted to its site as a result of the city's response to the public records request. For a deeper dive into MuckRock's arguments, click here.

EFF is pleased that the court lifted the order in this case and vindicated MuckRock’s right to publish documents one of its users lawfully obtained via a public records request.

At the same time, the case underscores how broad court orders that prevent parties from speaking jeopardize free speech.

When the plaintiffs obtained the order requiring MuckRock to take down the two documents, they claimed that both contained trade secrets that should never have been public. In a court filing on Thursday, however, the plaintiffs changed course. They first admitted that one of the documents did not contain any trade secret information. Thus it should never have been removed from MuckRock.

And after reviewing the second document, plaintiffs determined that only small portions of the document contained what they believe are trade secrets. They provided a redacted copy of the document to Seattle, which was later posted to MuckRock.

Despite knowing that their original trade secret claims were vastly overstated, before Friday’s hearing, plaintiffs never asked the court to modify the order against MuckRock.

Instead, MuckRock remained subject to a court order that even the plaintiffs had no intention of defending for more than a week, an inexcusable deprivation of MuckRock's First Amendment rights.

This confirms what we have long said: courts must more closely scrutinize requests for orders that prohibit speech or require the removal of content from a website, even if the plaintiff pleads that it's an emergency.

That said, EFF is grateful that MuckRock prevailed. We are also indebted to our local counsel Venkat Balasubramani, who attended Friday’s hearing and argued on MuckRock’s behalf.

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