A core part of EFF’s mission is transparency and access to information, because we know that in a nation bound by the rule of law, the public must have the ability to know the law and how it is being applied. That’s why the default rule is that the public must have full access to court records—even if those records contain unsavory details. Any departure from that rule must be narrow and well-justified.
But litigants and judges aren’t always rigorous in upholding that principle. For example, when Brian Fargo sued Jennifer Tejas for allegedly defamatory Instagram posts, he asked that the court seal portions of his filings that contained those posts, references to other people and private medical information. The court granted Fargo’s request, with little explanation or apparent care.
That approach set a dangerous precedent for others. The public has a right to know what courts consider defamatory. So, with help from the First Amendment Clinic at UCLA School of Law, EFF and the First Amendment Coalition moved to unseal the records containing the Instagram posts and references to other people.
The judge denied that request. Undeterred, we appealed–and won (PDF download). The appeals court chided the trial court for its failure to adequately justify its sealing order, and its equal failure to make sure the order was narrowly tailored so that as little as possible would be hidden from the public. While it did allow some information to remain sealed–information related to private medical records can be kept from the public, and pseudonyms should be used in some exhibits to protect the privacy of third parties–it ordered the rest released.
We are grateful to the First Amendment Clinic for their help in vindicating the public’s right to know. And we hope this case will serve as a reminder to judges and litigants to take that right seriously in the future.