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Concurring Opinion

United States Supreme Court

494 U.S. 624

Butterworth  v.  Smith

No. 88-1993  Argued: Jan. 16, 1990. --- Decided: March 21, 1990


When respondent Smith, a reporter, testified before a state grand jury about alleged improprieties committed by certain public officials, he was warned that if he revealed his testimony in any manner, he would be subject to criminal prosecution under Fla.Stat. § 905.27, which prohibits, inter alia, a witness from ever disclosing testimony given before a grand jury. After the grand jury terminated its investigation, Smith-who wanted to write about the investigation's subject matter, including, inter alia, his grand jury testimony-filed suit in Federal District Court, seeking a declaration that § 905.27 was an unconstitutional abridgment of speech, and an injunction preventing the State from prosecuting him. The court granted summary judgment to the State, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that § 905.27 is unconstitutional to the extent that it applies to witnesses who speak about their own testimony after the grand jury investigation is terminated.

Held: Section 905.27 violates the First Amendment insofar as it prohibits a grand jury witness from disclosing his own testimony after the grand jury's term has ended. Pp. 629-636.

(a) To determine the validity of Florida's ban, the State's interests in preserving the confidentiality of its grand jury proceedings must be balanced against Smith's asserted First Amendment rights. See Landmark Communications Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 838, 98 S.Ct. 1535, 1541, 56 L.Ed.2d 1. Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 104 S.Ct. 2199, 81 L.Ed.2d 17 which held that a protective order prohibiting a newspaper from publishing information which it had obtained through discovery procedures did not offend the First Amendment-does not govern the validity of Florida's ban, since the instant case deals with divulging information that was in a witness' possession before he testified before the grand jury, not information he may have obtained from his participation in those proceedings. State officials may not constitutionally punish publication of lawfully obtained truthful information about a matter of public importance absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order. Pp. 629-632.

(b) Florida's interests in preserving grand jury secrecy either are not served by, or are insufficient to warrant, its ban. Once an investigation ends, there is no need to keep information from the targeted individual to prevent his escape, since he will have been either exonerated or charged. Nor is there a need to prevent the importuning of grand jurors whose deliberations will be over. Similarly, the concern that some witnesses will be deterred from presenting testimony due to fears about retribution is not advanced by the ban, since any witness is free not to divulge his own testimony, and since the part of § 905.27 that prohibits a witness from disclosing the testimony of another witness remains enforceable. While Florida's interest in preventing the subornation of grand jury witnesses who will later testify at trial is served by the ban to the extent that the accused will have an additional opportunity to learn of the witness' existence, its effect is marginal at best and insufficient to outweigh the First Amendment interest involved. With present-day criminal procedure generally requiring disclosure of witnesses by the State, the witness' name will be available to the accused before trial anyway. In addition, Florida has substantial criminal penalties for both perjury and witness tampering, and its courts have subpoena and contempt powers available to bring recalcitrant witnesses to the stand. Although Florida has a substantial interest in seeing that persons who are exonerated will not be held up to public ridicule, that interest alone cannot justify the proscription of truthful speech, absent exceptional circumstances. Pp. 632-634.

(c) The fact that neither the drafters of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, nor the drafters of similar rules in the majority of the States, found it necessary to impose an obligation of secrecy on grand jury witnesses to protect any of the interests asserted by Florida is probative of the weight to be assigned those interests and the extent to which the ban in question is necessary to further them. Pp. 634-635.

(d) The ban's impact on Smith's ability to make a truthful public statement is dramatic. Here, Smith, who before testifying was free to speak about information he possessed on matters of admitted public concern, believes that he is no longer free to communicate this information. The potential for abuse of the ban, through its employment as a device to silence those who know of unlawful conduct or irregularities on the part of public officials, is apparent. Pp. 635-636.

866 F.2d 1318 (CA 11 1989), affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. SCALIA, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 636.

George L. Waas, Tallahassee, Fla., for petitioners.

Gregg Darrow Thomas, for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).