High court clears way for CBS report on meat

February 10, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Four hours before going on the air with a story about unclean meat, CBS-TV got permission yesterday from a Supreme Court justice to show film taken secretly inside a South Dakota packing plant.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun set aside a state judge's order that would have barred the show "48 Hours" from including a two-minute videotape as part of a story titled "Bum Steer."

The justice relied on the long-standing view of the court that judges should almost never stop the press from publishing a story and that any punishment for harm done by a story should be imposed afterward, not before.

The CBS story, seeking to portray what happens to contaminated meat during commercial processing, would have omitted the taped segment if Justice Blackmun had not given permission to use it.

Although the network had promised not to disclose the identity of the plant where the footage was taken by an employee wearing a hidden camera, the company made its identity known by going to state court to get the segment banned. The company is Federal Beef Processors Inc., of Rapid City, S.D.

After failing to get the ban set aside in the state Supreme Court, CBS asked Justice Blackmun to do so. In a four-page opinion, he noted that the court has rarely upheld any judge's order to stop in advance a story in the press.

Federal Beef, the justice said, had not proven to him that it would be harmed enough by the broadcast to justify "this most extraordinary remedy."

The company had argued that the free-press clause of the First Amendment does not protect CBS in this situation because it had obtained the videotape by "unlawful means." The employee's use of a hidden camera, the company said, violated company policy and its privacy, and it argued that the tape would expose commercial secrets and would cause restaurant chains and other buyers not to do business with Federal Beef for fear of getting tainted meat.

A state judge had agreed and told the network not to air the two-minute footage until after its right to do so had been ruled upon by the state Supreme Court. However, the state's highest court was not going to take up the issue until late March.

Justice Blackmun said that if a news organization is barred by a court from publishing or broadcasting a story, "each passing day" of the ban may be a separate violation of its free press rights.

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