Cable News Network is asking the Supreme Court to let it broadcast tape recordings of deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's telephone conversations with his lawyers from his Florida jail cell.
The justices Friday were awaiting responses from Noriega and the Bush administration to the emergency CNN request and are unlikely to act on the matter before next week.Meanwhile, the FBI said Thursday it had obtained CNN tapes in Atlanta and was checking whether they were recordings of Noriega. CNN protested that the tapes were obtained without a warrant and demanded they be returned.
The network said the material was taken from a room that been occupied by one of its reporters at the Omni Hotel, part of a complex that also houses CNN's offices. A security firm had notified FBI agents about the box of materials, CNN said.
CNN's lawyers on Thursday asked Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to set aside a federal judge's order banning the broadcasts. Kennedy, who handles such emergency matters from Florida, promptly referred the case to the full court.
Lawyers for Noriega and the administration were urged to reply to the network's arguments by noon Saturday.
The justices could act on the matter over the weekend but may decide to take some more time to study it.
"CNN has been restrained indefinitely from telecasting news of great importance to the public," lawyers for the network said. "Balanced against this irreparable harm to the First Amendment, CNN and the public are speculative threats to interests that can be otherwise protected."
CNN is challenging an order issued by U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler in Miami on Nov. 8 that bars CNN from broadcasting at least some portions of the seven tapes until Hoeveler can determine whether the broadcasts would endanger Noriega's right to a fair trial.
CNN refused to hand over the tapes to Hoeveler but did agree not to broadcast tapes of Noriega talking to his lawyers until receiving some word from the Supreme Court.
Noriega is accused of accepting $4.6 million in bribes from Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel. He has been held at a federal prison outside Miami since his surrender shortly after the U.S. invasion of Panama last December.
Federal prison officials say inmates' telephone conversations routinely are monitored, except when the prisoners state that they are talking to their lawyers.
In addition to the emergency request, CNN's lawyers filed a formal appeal with the full Supreme Court that seeks to have the justices declare Hoeveler's order an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.
The network's lawyers said Noriega's rights to a fair trial have been jeopardized by the government's taping of his conversations, not by any CNN action.
"Gagging CNN will neither cure nor avoid any breach by the prosecution," the lawyers said.