District Judge Richard Scotti violated the First Amendment when he barred the Las Vegas Review-Journal from reporting on the redacted autopsy report of an Oct. 1 shooting victim, a three-justice panel of the Nevada Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
“While we are deeply sympathetic to the decedent’s family’s privacy concerns, the First Amendment does not permit a court to enjoin the press from reporting on a redacted autopsy report already in the public domain,” the opinion states.
The 11-page opinion, authored by Justice Kristina Pickering, comes after the Review-Journal filed an emergency petition challenging Scotti’s Feb. 9 ruling, which pertained to the autopsy report of off-duty Las Vegas police officer Charleston Hartfield, one of the 58 people killed at the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting.
Justices Mark Gibbons and James Hardesty concurred with the opinion.
“We’re grateful the Nevada Supreme Court issued such a strong defense of the First Amendment and press freedoms,” Review-Journal Managing Editor Glenn Cook said. “The quick action of the justices reflects the awfulness of Judge Scotti’s decision. His ruling was an abomination.”
In his decision, Scotti sided with widow Veronica Hartfield’s privacy concerns and ordered the Review-Journal and The Associated Press to either return or destroy any copies of Hartfield’s autopsy report.
“While nobody wants a grieving widow to be in pain, we can’t hide the truth about horrific events like 1 October, including the horrific damage that the shooter caused with the weapons he had access to,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said. “There is a national debate about guns right now, and what guns do to the human body is a necessary part of that debate.”
Hartfield’s report was one of 58 that a different judge ordered the Clark County coroner’s office to release in the wake of another lawsuit, which argued that the autopsies of the shooting victims should be public. That judge also ordered the coroner’s office to release the gunman’s autopsy report.
In the Supreme Court opinion, the justices assumed that Hartfield’s family “had a protectable privacy interest in preventing disclosure of Mr. Hartfield’s autopsy report.”
“Even making this assumption, the fact remains that the Review-Journal obtained the redacted autopsy reports from the Coroner before the Hartfield Parties sued,” the decision continues.
Aside from privacy rights, the widow’s attorney argued that she and other victim families should have been notified about the original lawsuit and the possible release of victim autopsies.
“Mandatory Supreme Court precedent teaches, however, that where the press obtains private information from the state — even where the state should have protected the information — damages or criminal punishment may not be imposed for its subsequent publication, absent extraordinary circumstances,” the decision states.
Scotti’s order applied only to the Review-Journal and the AP, the original parties that sued for the release of all Oct. 1 victim autopsies. Once District Judge Timothy Williams deemed the documents public record in January, about 100 other media outlets received copies of the reports, a Clark County spokesman told the Review-Journal.
“Leaving other news organizations free to report on Mr. Hartfield’s redacted autopsy report while restraining the Review-Journal and The Associated Press from doing so does not accomplish the stated goal of protecting Hartfield Parties’ privacy interests,” according to the high court’s decision.
The court concluded its ruling by instructing Scotti to vacate his order, allowing the Review-Journal and the AP to report freely on Hartfield’s report.
“The lawsuit was completely unnecessary,” Cook said. “Mr. Hartfield’s autopsy report was redacted by the coroner before it was released to the press, as was the report of every Oct. 1. victim. Their privacy was always protected.”
Reporters committee supports ruling
Shortly after District Judge Richard Scotti barred the Las Vegas Review-Journal from disseminating or reporting on Charleston Hartfield’s redacted autopsy report, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief with the Nevada Supreme Court in support of the newspaper’s appeal.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday, the organization’s staff attorney issued the following statement:
“Barring publication is one of the most serious infringements on a free press, and the court’s ruling upholds the press and public’s First Amendment right to access and report on public records. The information in these anonymous autopsy records has already helped shed light on and helped the public better understand what transpired during this tragedy.”