The Alabama Gas Corporation (Alagasco) took legal action on September 17 and sought a temporary restraining order to block publication of a document detailing the company’s plan for gas line safety, which the newspaper had obtained through an open records request from the Alabama Public Service Commission.
The company hyped the fear of “terrorism” claiming “public knowledge of the company’s energy infrastructure would make it ‘vulnerable to sabotage or terrorist attack, thereby endangering the life, limb and property of the public.'” It also claimed the document contained proprietary information.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance granted on September 12 and blocked the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing any details in the document. The media organization objected, arguing that the order constituted a “prior restraint contrary to the rights afforded by the First Amendment.”
Advertiser executive editor Tom Clifford said, “We properly found out where the bad pipes are, and right now we are being ordered by a judge not to tell you where they are. How ridiculous is that?”
Four days later, the court reversed itself [PDF].
“Mindful of the constitutional implications involved, this court concludes that it erred in granting the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order,” Vance wrote.
“At this stage, the court cannot see such a clear and present danger,” Vance stated. “In its motion for a temporary restraining order, the plaintiff raised the danger of terrorism and sabotage if data within its Distribution Integrity Management Plan were publicly disclosed. While such possibilities might exist, they now appear to be only vague phantoms. On reflection, the court finds that it too readily focused on such ghosts in entering the temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiff.”
As to the argument that the document was “private property not properly subject to public disclosure,” the company voluntarily provided the public safety plan to the Public Service Commission and ceded “unfettered control over its property,” Vance concluded.
The worst part is that this is not over. The judge is going to hold a hearing on September 25 on Alagascorp’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
The “danger of terrorism and sabotage” should never have been accepted as credible enough to prohibit journalism, and one truly has to wonder why a judge that sees ghosts is allowed to continue to hold this kind of power.
When it was issued, Kyle Whitmire, a commentator for the Alabama Media Group, showed the proper contempt for Vance’s temporary restraining order:
Apparently, if ISIS were to get their hands on Alagasco’s distribution integrity management program manual, we’re all in a lot of trouble.
In other states, these same records are public documents and subject to anyone’s inspection. As yet, none of those states have been overrun by al Qaeda.
And let’s be clear about the score here. So far, terrorists haven’t killed anyone in Alabama. On other hand, exploding gas lines have killed at least one.
It all demonstrates how easily terrorism can be invoked by anyone to obstruct almost any freedom in this country, especially in local branches of government where hysterical fears of “lone wolves” lurking among Americans may run rampant.
In this instance, a corporation imagines the document could be used by “terrorists” to attack the company’s pipes in order to protect itself from scrutiny. It is not required to proffer any motive for damaging pipes or evidence that such a thing is likely to happen. All a company has to do is include a sentence with the word terrorism in a motion and a state judge takes it seriously.
For the record, the document had been sought as part of a USA Today pipe safety project investigating the “dangers of cast iron pipes, which when corroded can cause gas leaks, fires and explosions.” Federal data shows Alagasco has “about 833 miles of cast iron main gas lines, which is the highest of any gas company in Alabama and ninth highest in the country.”
If any “clear and present danger” exists, it is that a corporation would be able to bamboozle a state court into keeping a document secret that could help citizens understand whether the gas pipes in their community are at risk of explosion or not. And that possible danger, as can be seen in this case, is not some “vague phantom.”