WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court in Atlanta temporarily barred Cable News Network yesterday from broadcasting tape recordings it has of deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega talking to his defense lawyers, and CNN vowed to take the dispute swiftly to the Supreme Court.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, urged by the Justice Department not to let the tapes be aired for the time being, upheld a temporary 10-day ban issued by the Florida federal judge who is handling the government's prosecution of General Noriega for alleged drug crimes.
The case poses a major test of a federal court's power to stop a news organization from releasing information when the court is acting to avoid the risk of violating the constitutional rights of an accused person.
CNN already has once ignored the Miami judge's order not to use the tapes. It broadcast excerpts of the sound tapes on Friday.
The network was also put under orders by the appeals court yesterday to hand over to U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler seven recordings. If Judge Hoeveler finds public disclosure of the tapes would impair General Noriega's right to a fair trial or his right to talk privately with his lawyers about his case, he could make his ban on broadcast permanent.
In ordering CNN it to hand the tapes over to Judge Hoeveler, the Circuit Court declared yesterday:
"The First Amendment interests of the press and public will best be served by immediate production of the tapes held by CNN so that the District Court can conduct the difficult balancing of constitutional rights."
It added that CNN "has shackled" Judge Hoeveler "by refusing [his] reasonable request to review the audiotapes it has in its possession."
CNN lawyers could not be reached for comment last night, but CNN President Tom Johnson issued a brief statement saying that the network would "pursue an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court." The highest court will not be in session until Tuesday, but the justices could act on a CNN appeal without assembling.
The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that "prior restraints" on the press -- that is, direct orders not to publish something -- are almost always unconstitutional.
It has said, however, that such bans on publication may be upheld if the publication would pose a clear threat of serious harm. For example, the court has ruled that the press may be forbidden to report movements of military troops during wartime.
Few attempts to impose prepublication bans have met the strict test the court has set, however.
The recordings are of conversations between General Noriega and his lawyers or legal associates by telephone from the federal prison where he is being held, the Metropolitan Correctional Center outside Miami.
In Miami, a Noriega attorney, Frank Rubino, said the network will ask Judge Hoeveler to dismiss all charges against the former Panamanian strongman, on the theory that the government has invaded the privacy of his legal defense team.
Mr. Rubino formally asked the judge yesterday to hold the network in contempt of court. He also asked the judge to fine CNN $300,000 for every broadcast of the recordings in the past and every time it airs any of the tapes in the future.