When sloppy redaction fails, resort to censorship

The Broward County School Board used an idiot’s form of “redaction” on a PDF before sending it to the media. The Sun Sentinel removed the blackout layer from the file and found newsworthy information on shooter Nikolas Cruz. They published it. Judge Elizabeth Scherer flew into a rage. She decreed, “From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print… then I’ll do that.”

That’s called prior restraint, or censorship.

According to one report, the information was extracted by “copying and pasting the information from a PDF to a Word document.”

The news reports don’t say precisely how the redaction was supposed to work, but it’s easy to read between the lines. Adding a blackout layer is a common and totally ineffective way to hide parts of a file’s content. The original text is still there and can easily be extracted.

There could be factors I don’t know about. But it appears from those reports that the Sun Sentinel wasn’t under a restraining order, and my understanding is that normally it is legally allowed to publish information which is sent to it. Dictating what a news outlet may publish is allowed only under extraordinary circumstances.

Scherer said, “That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that.” That sounds plausible, and the Sun Sentinel’s lawyer said that would also be legal.

The lesson to learn, from a technical standpoint, is not to be irredeemably sloppy when sending out information. There might be a case for citing the school board with contempt of court, but I have no idea whether someone can commit contempt of court through negligence.

Scherer told the Sun Sentinel, “Your actions are shameful,” but as far as I can tell the shameful actions were the school board’s sloppiness and her threat to censor a news outlet.

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