- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A judge is considering whether to lift his order blocking the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing material it obtained from the Alabama Public Service Commission about Alabama Gas Corp.’s natural gas lines.

Lawyers for the paper asked Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance during a Monday hearing to end the ban, arguing it was unconstitutional.

Vance’s order, issued Aug. 12 without the paper having a chance to object, marked the first time in 143 years that a member of the Alabama Press Association was blocked by a court from publishing “truthful or accurate” information, said Advertiser attorney Dennis Bailey.

“This was prior restraint,” said Bailey.

Lawyers for Alabama Gas argued the paper received a gas line safety document illegally through an open records request since the company didn’t receive a required notice saying the information had been requested.

Aside from that problem, the document belongs to Alagasco and includes sensitive information that could pose a threat to public safety, utility attorneys argued.

“This is a national security issue,” said utility attorney Reid Carpenter.

The judge said he would rule by noon Tuesday on whether to end a temporary restriction on publication, and he also told lawyers to be ready for another hearing Thursday. Alagasco said it would present evidence about the possible security threat during that session.

Vance, a Democrat who lost a bid for Alabama Supreme Court chief justice in 2012, said the dispute reminded him of the Pentagon Papers case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block publication of sensitive information about the Vietnam War after ruling the Nixon administration failed to prove release of the documents would pose a real threat to national security.

The Advertiser had asked the utility-regulating PSC for a copy of Alagasco’s Distribution Integrity Management Plan as part of a pipe safety project by USA Today, which like the Advertiser is published by Gannett. The PSC said it provided the document to the newspaper because it wasn’t marked as proprietary information.

After the Advertiser submitted questions to the utility about the contents of the plan, Alagasco filed suit asking the judge to prevent publication of material included in the document. Vance agreed without giving the newspaper a chance to respond, but the paper later objected.

Alagasco lawyer David Rich said the company asked the judge for the ban without telling the newspaper because it feared the Advertiser would publish the information and cause “irreparable injury” to the company and public safety.

Bailey argued the plan contains information about the integrity of cast iron pipes that the company may not want made public. He said the locations of gas lines aren’t secret since they are typically marked by signs, included in documents filed at courthouses and available to customers to dial a phone number set up by the utility.

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