Editorial: Media object to widespread Bundy case secrecy

Three media organizations have filed an objection to a federal judge’s order to veil in sweeping secrecy documents and evidence in the Bundy case.

Earlier in July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen ordered all materials produced by the government in discovery in the case — grand jury transcripts, agency reports, witness statements, memoranda of interviews, documents and objects produced by the government — are to be confidential and anything filed court relating to these are to be automatically filed under seal.

She said this was being done to protect witnesses, victims, law enforcement, prosecutors and other government officials from being intimidated — mostly based on vague 2-year-old Internet postings that suggested certain people might come to harm.

Attorney Maggie McLetchie — who represents the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper, this newspaper and The Associated Press — on Friday filed the 22-page objection, saying the secrecy order is excessive and unnecessary.

The Bundy case grows out of the April 2014 standoff between Bureau of Land Management law enforcement and armed supporters of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy had failed to pay grazing fees for 20 years and the BLM was attempting to roundup his cattle. The 19 defendants face felony charges that include conspiracy, obstruction, extortion and assault, which carry penalties of up to 50 years in prison.

The BLM eventually released the cattle rather than risk bloodshed.

McLetchie argues (specific cites omitted): “The Magistrate Judge noted that public access to discovery materials is more limited than to court proceedings. … However, in allowing the materials deemed ‘Confidential’ to be automatically filed under seal, the Court’s Protective Order essentially misapplied the lesser standard for access to criminal discovery to judicial filing. The law of this circuit and the common law ‘start with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records.’ … Given this presumption of public access, the Ninth Circuit ‘requires a party to make a particularized showing of good cause for each document it seeks to file under seal.’”

McLetchie notes that the rambling and ranting social media postings cited by the government as a rationale for secrecy are free speech, protected expression of frustration and not actual threats.

These included: “EVERYONE PLEASE CALL … They need to know that they are doing is NOT right and that we notices [sic] it and we are a shamed [sic] of them!” and “Sounds like to solve the problem a lqnd [sic] owner will, have to take out an AR 10 and put a bullet in -head to save the other land owners to stop this, if I had land. i will now, kniw [sic] who to shoot first….”

Rather than close off everything, the attorney suggests identifying information could be redacted.

McLetchie concludes: “Indeed, the magistrate judge’s protective order subverts longstanding presumptions that (1) court records are presumptively public, and (2) depriving the public of access to public records requires a careful balancing of the private and public interests at stake. Instead, with little in the way of good cause to support a protective order, the magistrate judge has mandated that all confidential documents attached to motions and pleadings must be filed under seal without requiring the filing party to show why sealing is necessary. This runs contrary to the Ninth Circuit and this Court’s law, and should not be the standard for filing documents and supporting discovery in this case.”

The public has a right to see whether justice is done from now until and through the trial scheduled for next February. Meanwhile, all the defendants are being held without bail. They and their attorneys should have a right to speak freely about their cases.

A version of this editorial appears in the print version of this week’s Mesquite Local News.

Protesters confront BLM agents near Bundy ranch. (Reuters photo via Newsweek)

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