Seal on Top of Seal-Company Trying to Protect Corporate Image Denied
That sure is a lot of [redacting!]
A business in 2012 that had sued the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission over the agency’s SaferProducts.gov database and had convinced a court to let it do so anonymously (0r like under seal in a whistleblower case) in order to protect the company’s reputation, setting a dangerous precedent that would allow manufacturers to file such lawsuits completely out of view of the public.
SaferProducts.gov is a Congressionally mandated database set up by the CPSC that collects and makes public safety-related complaints about consumer products. Just like the database run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it gives businesses the opportunity to examine and respond to reports submitted to the site.
After some discussions with Company Doe, CPSC redacted some of what had been posted to the database. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Doe, which then filed suit against the CPSC and its then-chair, Inez Tenenbaum.
Advocacy groups, including our colleagues at Consumers Union, petitioned the court in 2012 to unseal this information, but the court denied that request. Even the groups’ objection to the sealing was kept under wraps by the court. (Wow that’s a seal on top of a seal; and, I have a feeling that all this sealing is just calling more attention to something that probably would have blown over quickly but now everyone’s curiosity is piqued and seal in this case did the opposite of what the company wanted). Bad for the company but good for the consumer.
But rather than use the public forum of a lawsuit to make its case and clear its name, Company Doe convinced a court to hide every material fact about the case — the company’s name, location, the type of product, its brand name, the names of all individuals involved — so that the entire matter has so far been litigated behind a steel door of secrecy (under seal).
We’ve discussed on this blog under The Sociopathic Business Model ™ that a business will operate corruptly and even illegally trying to suppress the truth for fear the exposure of the facts could possibly damaging their corporate image. (that certainly sounds like this case, doesn’t it?) So while Company Doe was successful in getting some information redacted, the federal government found there were also some problems with the unknown product they make. Shouldn’t we as consumers have the right to know?
Well, the Federal appeals court thinks so and sided with consumer advocates and ordered that Company Doe’s identity be revealed.
“It is well settled that the public and press have a qualified right of access to judicial documents and records filed in civil and criminal proceedings,” writes the court in its opinion. “The right of public access springs from the First Amendment and the common-law tradition that court proceedings are presumptively open to public scrutiny. A corporation very well may desire that the allegations lodged against it in the course of litigation be kept from public view to protect its corporate image, but the First Amendment right of access does not yield to such an interest… A corporation may possess a strong interest in preserving the confidentiality of its proprietary and trade-secret information, which in turn may justify partial sealing of court records. We are unaware, however, of any case in which a court has found a company’s bare allegation of reputational harm to be a compelling interest sufficient to defeat the public’s First Amendment right of access.”
Scott Michelman, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case said:
“The ruling is a complete victory for consumers and a strong vindication of the First Amendment imperative to conduct litigation in the open.”
Stay tuned here for when the records are unsealed or keep checking Consumerist.