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Scientology files can be opened, magistrate rules

Title: Scientology files can be opened, magistrate rules
Date: Wednesday, 23 August 1989
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Stephen Koff
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TAMPA — In a forceful pronouncement of press and public rights, a federal magistrate has recommended that four sealed Church of Scientology case files be opened.

Scientology lawyer Paul Johnson said the church "respectfully disagrees" with U.S. Magistrate Paul Game Jr.'s report, and will ask a federal judge to review the magistrate's findings.

Until a federal judge rules, the files will be sealed, Johnson said.

Game's ruling was released Aug. 15 and received by the St Petersburg Times on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich sealed the files in 1986, over the objections of Walt Logan, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represented several parties in the suits. The files were sealed without following federal rules for closure that allow 10 days for response, Game said. Logan's clients, who included former Clearwater Mayor Gabe Cairn, had subsequently tried — unsuccessfully — to unseal the files. But when the Times filed a motion to intervene last November, Kovachevich asked Game to review the matter. The Times argued that even though the lawsuits were resolved, the case files contained new and newsworthy information on ongoing proceedings.

The Church of Scientology, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, countered that the Times waited too long, and that there was nothing of news value in the files. But Game said in his strongly worded, 25-page report that "the Times promptly moved for access when it learned that there were other proceedings . . . in progress. It was the awareness of this new round of legal battles and the extent of those battles that convinced the Times that it must intervene. I find this motion is timely."

Further, he said, "If I agreed with the Church, I would, in fact, make an editorial judgment relating to newsworthiness of information. Consistently, the Supreme Court has held that exercising news judgment remains exclusively in the hands of those who decide what to publish or broadcast and not with the courts."

The new information in the files relates to Scientology's attempts to silence former church members and critics who have publicly aired their grievances. The settlement agreements forbade either side from discussing certain matters that were part of the suits.

Game not only said that the files should be unsealed but also that all future hearings should "be conducted in the open."

Said Patricia Fields Anderson, a lawyer for the Times: "I'm entirely pleased that Magistrate Game is sensitive to the traditional and historic access to public court proceedings. This affirms that no one is above the law — especially Scientology."

Two components of the files, however, should remain sealed, Game said. Those are the documents that spell out terms of the settlements, including money, and some private Scientology papers that were sealed in other courts. "We were pleased that the magistrate ruled that the settlement agreements would remain inviolate," Johnson said.

Scientologists, who consider their beliefs a religion, say they can reach higher spiritual levels by getting rid of deep-seated problems with the help of a lie detector-like device. Critics have contended the church is a satanic cult.