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U.S. Supreme Court

Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20 (1984)

Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart

No. 82-1721

Argued February 21, 1984

Decided May 21, 1984

467 U.S. 20


Respondent Rhinehart is the spiritual leader of a religious group, respondent Aquarian Foundation. In recent years, petitioner newspaper companies published several stories about Rhinehart and the Foundation. A damages action for alleged defamation and invasions of privacy was brought in a Washington state court by respondents (who also include certain members of the Foundation) against petitioners (who also include the authors of the articles and their spouses). During the course of extensive discovery, respondents refused to disclose certain information, including the identity of the Foundation's donors and members. Pursuant to state discovery Rules modeled on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the trial court issued an order compelling respondents to identify all donors who made contributions during the five years preceding the date of the complaint, along with the amounts donated. The court also required respondents to divulge enough membership information to substantiate any claims of diminished membership. However, pursuant to the State's Rule 26(c), the court also issued a protective order prohibiting petitioners from publishing, disseminating, or using the information in any way except where necessary to prepare for and try the case. In seeking the protective order, respondents had submitted affidavits of several Foundation members averring that public release of the information would adversely affect Foundation membership and income and would subject its members to harassment and reprisals. By its terms, the protective order did not apply to information gained by means other than the discovery process. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed both the production order and the protective order, concluding that even if the latter order was assumed to constitute a prior restraint of free expression, the trial court had not violated its discretion in issuing the order.

Held: The protective order issued in this case does not offend the First Amendment. Pp. 467 U. S. 29-37.

(a) In addressing the First Amendment question presented here, it is necessary to consider whether the "practice in question [furthers] an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression" and whether

"the limitation of First Amendment

Page 467 U. S. 21

freedoms [is] no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved."

Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U. S. 396, 416 U. S. 413. Pp. 31-32.

(b) Judicial limitations on a party's ability to disseminate information discovered in advance of trial implicates the First Amendment rights of the restricted party to a far lesser extent than would restraints on dissemination of information in other contexts. Rules authorizing discovery are a matter of legislative grace. A litigant has no First Amendment right of access to information made available only for purposes of trying his suit. Furthermore, restraints placed on discovered information are not a restriction on a traditionally public source of information. Pp. 467 U. S. 32-34.

(c) Rule 26(c) furthers a substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression. Liberal pretrial discovery under the State's Rules has a significant potential for abuse. There is an opportunity for litigants to obtain -- incidentally or purposefully -- information that not only is irrelevant but, if publicly released, could be damaging to reputation and privacy. The prevention of such abuse is sufficient justification for the authorization of protective orders. Pp. 467 U. S. 34-36.

(d) The provision for protective orders in the Washington Rules -- conferring broad discretion on the trial court -- requires, in itself, no heightened First Amendment scrutiny. The unique character of the discovery process requires that the trial court have substantial latitude to fashion protective orders. P. 467 U. S. 36.

(e) In this case, the trial court entered the protective order upon a showing that constituted good cause as required by Rule 26(c). Also, the order is limited to the context of pretrial civil discovery, and does not restrict dissemination if the information is obtained from other sources. It is sufficient for purposes of this Court's decision that the highest court in the State found no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decision to issue a protective order pursuant to a constitutional state law. Pp. 467 U. S. 36-37.

98 Wash.2d 226, 654 P.2d 673, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 467 U. S. 37. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 467 U. S. 22

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