Motion filed with U.S. Supreme Court

Updated: July 22, 2004, 1:51 AM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Media organizations asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to stay a court ruling that bars publication of closed-door hearing details in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.

Attorneys for the media groups, which include ESPN and The Associated Press, challenged the trial judge's ruling, which was upheld this week by the Colorado Supreme Court. The filing was confirmed by an AP attorney, Dave Tomlin.

The media groups asked Justice Stephen Breyer to put the ruling on hold pending a formal appeal of the state high court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The First Amendment clash centers on transcripts from a two-day private hearing in June that were accidentally e-mailed to the media groups by a court reporter.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle quickly issued an order threatening a contempt citation against any news organization that releases details from the hearing, which focused on attempts by Bryant's attorneys to have his accuser's sex life and money she received from a state victims' compensation program introduced as evidence. Those decisions are pending.

In a 4-3 ruling, the state's high court upheld Ruckriegle's order -- though it acknowledged it amounts to prior restraint, which is barred by the Constitution. The court said such a step was permissible to protect the alleged victim's privacy rights and Bryant's right to a fair trial.

Prior restraint, the court added, "is necessary to protect against an evil that is great and certain and would result from reportage."

Attorneys for the media groups, however, said Ruckriegle's order "cannot withstand even the most cursory application of well-settled First Amendment principles."

If the order is not lifted, the media attorneys said, the media and public will "suffer continued and irreparable violation of their fundamental liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment."

Bryant, 25, is accused of raping a front desk worker at a Vail-area resort last summer. He has pleaded innocent to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with the woman, now 20.

If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000. His trial begins Aug. 27.

The media attorneys also criticized the Colorado court's conclusions on the prior restraint issue.

"Prior restraint is a particular anathema in part because it always imposes certain censorship based solely on speculation and surmise that publication will cause some harm," they argued. "In reality, it is impossible to know in advance what will be published and whether the publication will cause the asserted harms."

The attorneys also chided the Colorado justices for endorsing "the truly extraordinary suggestion that prior restraints are a preferred alternative to post-publication sanctions."

"In other words, the way to avoid self-censorship is to have the government censor directly," they said. "The Colorado Supreme Court's logic quite literally stands the First Amendment on its head. Censorship is what the First Amendment ultimately seeks to prevent."

Bryant's defense team has suggested injuries found on the woman during a hospital exam could have been caused by sex with someone other than the NBA star. They have publicly suggested she had "multiple" sexual partners around the time of her encounter with Bryant -- including someone afterward, a claim vehemently denied by the woman's attorney.

The media appeal referred to these claims in claiming the gist of arguments from the closed-door hearing are already in the public domain through court filings, news stories and the Internet.

The hearing at issue "is dedicated almost entirely to discussion of a single defense theory about a single alleged sexual encounter that the defense maintains occurred in the 15 hours immediately after the alleged victim's sexual encounter with the defendant," the attorneys said.

Besides ESPN and the AP, organizations involved in the transcripts case are The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, Fox News and the television show "Celebrity Justice."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press