Seattle Times Company v. Rhinehart
Decided May 21, 1984; 467 US 20


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did parties involved in a civil litigation have a 1st Amendment right to disseminate, in advance of trial, information gained through the pretrial discovery process?


A. Background:

Respondent Rhinehart was the spiritual leader of a religious group, the Aquarian Foundation. Aquarian beliefs include life after death and the ability to communicate with the dead through mediums. Rhinehart was the primary Aquarian medium.

The Seattle Times and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin published stories about Rhinehart and the Foundation. Five articles appeared in 1973 that focused on Rhinehart and the manner in which he operated the foundation. They described seances conducted by Rhinehart in which people paid him to put them in touch with deceased relatives and friends. The articles also stated that Rhinehart had sold magical “stones” that had been “expelled” from his body. One article referred to Rhinehart's conviction, which was later vacated, for sodomy. The four articles that appeared in 1978 concentrated on an “extravaganza” sponsored by Rhinehart at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. The articles stated that he had treated 1,100 inmates to a 6-hour-long show, during which he gave away between $35,000 and $50,000 in cash and prizes. One article described a “chorus line of girls [who] shed their gowns and bikinis and sang...” The two articles that appeared in 1979 referred to a purported connection between Rhinehart and Lou Ferrigno, star of the popular television program, The Incredible Hulk.

Rhinehart brought this action alleging, among other things, that the articles contained “fictional and untrue” statements. The trial court issued a protective order prohibiting petitioners from publishing, disseminating, or using the information in any way except where necessary to prepare for and try the case.  Petitioners appealed from the protective order. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Evan L. Schwab argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were P. Cameron DeVore and Bruce E.H. Johnson. Malcolm L. Edwards argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Charles K. Wiggins.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
James C. Goodale, John G. Koeltl, Burt Neuborne, Charles S. Sims, W. Terry Maguire, Anthony Epstein, Erwin G. Krasnow, Bruce W. Sanford, J. Laurent Scharff, Richard M. Schmidt, Jr., and Donald F. Luke filed a brief  urging reversal for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"In addressing the First Amendment question presented here, it is necessary to consider whether the 'practice in question [furthers] an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression' and whether 'the limitation of First Amendment freedoms [is] no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved...' [reference to Procunier v. Martinez].

Judicial limitations on a party's ability to disseminate information discovered in advance of trial implicates the First Amendment rights of the restricted party to a far lesser extent than would restraints on dissemination of information in other contexts. Rules authorizing discovery are a matter of legislative grace. A litigant has no First Amendment right of access to information made available only for purposes of trying his suit. Furthermore, restraints placed on discovered information are not a restriction on a traditionally public source of information.

Rule 26(c) furthers a substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of expression. Liberal pretrial discovery under the State's Rules has a significant potential for abuse. There is an opportunity for litigants to obtain - incidentally or purposefully - information that not only is irrelevant but, if publicly released, could be damaging to reputation and privacy. The prevention of such abuse is sufficient justification for the authorization of protective orders.

The provision for protective orders in the Washington Rules - conferring broad discretion on the trial court - requires, in itself, no heightened First Amendment scrutiny. The unique character of the discovery process requires that the trial court have substantial latitude to fashion protective orders.

In this case, the trial court entered the protective order upon a showing that constituted good cause as required by Rule 26(c). Also, the order is limited to the context of pretrial civil discovery, and does not restrict dissemination if the information is obtained from other sources. It is sufficient for purposes of this Court's decision that the highest court in the State found no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decision to issue a protective order pursuant to a constitutional state law...

Held: The protective order issued in this case does not offend the First Amendment... affirmed"

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 9 Con

  • Powell, L. Con  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con  (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con  (Joined Brennan’s concurrence)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the Washington Supreme Court decision in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.