The city of Greensboro attempted and failed to obtain a temporary restraining order against YES!
Weekly on the evening of Jan. 29 to stop the distribution of information it says was accidentally given to the paper in public-information requests. City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan confirmed that Judge Ronald E. Spivey rejected the city’s request filed in Guilford County Superior Court on Jan. 29 after 5 p.m.
The city found out that YES! Weekly planned to publish information in a story about police surveillance of activists that the city now says should not have been released. Shah-Khan said the city sought the restraining order to prevent the dissemination of information that was not public record but was criminal intelligence, even though it was released through public records requests filed with the city’s public information office.
“We found out late Tuesday that information had been provided that would be the subject of a story… information that is protected from distribution under North Carolina law,” Shah-Khan said. “We felt it was the appropriate thing to do at that time. We respect the decision made by the judge.” The hearing was ex-parte, meaning only the city was present, and YES! Weekly wasn’t aware of the city’s attempt until sources contacted the paper a day later.
Lewis Pitts, a local public-interest lawyer, said the city should have known a judge would reject the request because the issue has been thoroughly adjudicated in the 1971 Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. United States, known as the “Pentagon Papers” case.
“That the city would spend legal resources and time to go in secret to a judge to try and stop the publication of an article based on information the city released should send shockwaves through the public,” Pitts said. “Thank goodness the court rejected it and thank goodness that YES! Weekly had the courage to run it. Restraint of the press prior to publication is government censorship and akin to totalitarianism and is not be tolerated in a free government.”
Shah-Khan said he made the decision to request a restraining order in conjunction with Police Attorney Jim Clark. The complaint, now available at yesweeklyblog.blogspot.com, includes a statement from Chief Ken Miller and named the wrong company associated with Publisher Charles Womack.
“I can say with certainty that no council member was involved in the discussion or decision to pursue a restraining order,” Shah-Khan wrote in an e-mail.
Mayor Robbie Perkins confirmed he was not part of the decision to request a restraining order.
“They just sent out an e-mail saying the city had asked for a temporary restraining order,” he said. “I knew about it after they’d asked for it.”
Shah-Khan said, “The final decision was mine. The police attorney and I worked on that and we felt it was the appropriate way to go. The buck stops with me. I don’t tell the chief how to do police work and the chief doesn’t tell me how to do my job either. The chief was part of the group that had information as to what we’re looking at.”
Shah-Khan would not comment on whether the action was necessary in retrospect, but said there hadn’t been a meeting to assess whether the city made the right call.
“This is a rare situation and I don’t recall if the city has done this on any other cases [with the media],” Shah- Khan said. “It’s criminal intelligence information. It talked about a confidential informant, at least according to your story.”
Shah-Khan said if they could find information about whether the city has ever requested a temporary restraining order against a media outlet he would notify YES! Weekly. So what’s next?
“There is no additional legal challenge,” Shah Khan said. “You’ve published the story and we’ll move on from there.”