Deference to a legislative finding cannot limit judicial inquiry when First Amendment rights are at stake.
On October 4, 1975, the Virginian Pilot, a Landmark newspaper, published an article which accurately reported on a pending inquiry by the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission and identified the state judge whose conduct was being investigated. Under Va. Code § 2.1-37.13 (1973), a Virginia statute, it was a crime to divulge information regarding proceedings before a state judicial review commission that was authorized to hear complaints about judges' disability or misconduct. For violating the aforementioned statute, the Virginian Pilot was indicted and convicted. On appeal, the Virginian Pilot argued that the statute violated the First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. Rejecting Virginian Pilot’s contention, the state supreme court affirmed the conviction.
Did the Va. Code § 2.1-37.13 (1973) violate the rights granted under the First Amendment?
The Court held that the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press did not permit the criminal punishment of third persons (including the news media), who were nonparticipants in the Commission's investigative proceedings, for divulging or publishing truthful information regarding the Commission's confidential proceedings. According to the Court, such encroachment on the First Amendment was not justified either on the ground that the absence of criminal sanctions would undermine the objectives of the state's statutory scheme for confidentiality, or on the ground of Virginia's interests in protecting the reputation of its judges and in maintaining the institutional integrity of its courts. In the case at bar, the Court noted that the published article provided accurate factual information about a legislatively authorized inquiry pending before the Commission, and served the interests of public scrutiny and discussion of governmental affairs that the first amendment was adopted to protect. Neither the state's interest in protecting the reputation of its judges, nor its interest in maintaining the institutional integrity of its courts, was sufficient to justify the subsequent punishment of speech.