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A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected as “classic prior restraint” a rare effort by the American Humane Association to keep the Los Angeles Times from writing about an internal personnel report. Judge Dzintra Janavs refused Jan. 25 to grant a temporary restraining order against the newspaper and set Feb. 20 for a further hearing. The AHA, a nonprofit association founded in the 1800s, fights abuse of animals and children. Its Western offices certify films based on filmmakers treatment of animals. Officials of the group realized after being interviewed by a Times reporter that the newspaper had obtained an internal report on the organization that AHA hired an attorney to prepare in 1999, according to a suit Michael St. Denis of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton filed Jan. 23. The AHA suit seeks to keep the report confidential based on attorney-client privilege, and states further that employees’ privacy is at stake. The report relates to pending Colorado litigation in which the former Western regional director of AHA is suing the group for wrongful termination, according to the suit. Attorneys for the AHA did not return phone calls requesting comment. The Times responded that attorney-client privilege, created by statute, never justifies such an extreme step as abridging the First Amendment right to publish. Although the newspaper says it “lawfully acquired” the report, its attorneys declined to discuss publication plans. The Times is represented by Alonzo Wickers IV of the L.A. office of Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine, and a team of the firm’s lawyers who recently foiled efforts by O.J. Simpson to use attorney-client privilege to block a CBS miniseries about his criminal trial. While investigative reporters often make use of materials that arguably were drafted by attorneys for clients, Wickers confirmed it is unusual for subjects to invoke attorney-client privilege to try to block publication. “It is a very high burden of proof,” said Wickers, adding that he knows of only one case even remotely related — when a U.S. district court temporarily ordered CNN not to broadcast confidential conversations between Manuel Noriega and his criminal defense attorney. The 11th Circuit rejected CNN’s appeal, but focused on the constitutional guarantees of a fair trial rather than on the issue of attorney-client privilege in U.S. v. Noriega, 917 F.2d 1543 (1990), Wickers noted. “It’s crucial that Noriega was a criminal case,” he said. “There you had the Sixth Amendment to pit against the First Amendment.” According to AHA’s suit against the Times, a reporter questioned the association’s officials about a possible conflict of interest in AHA’s receiving part of its funding from film industry groups — such as the Screen Actors Guild — and then certifying movies. The possible conflict has been a sensitive topic for AHA, which in the past has engaged in protracted litigation against TV personality and animal rights activist Bob Barker after he made allegedly defamatory comments about it.

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