A federal judge blocked enforcement of a California law that would have made it a crime for prospective witnesses in criminal cases to accept payment from journalists.

US District Judge Fern Smith on Aug. 7 ruled the so-called checkbook journalism law unconstitutional on free-speech grounds.

The law was passed last September in response to disclosures that some prospective witnesses in O.J. Simpson's double-murder trial had accepted money for speaking to reporters.

It was challenged by a journalists' group, the California First Amendment Coalition, which said the law hinders news gathering and deprives the public of information. The group said the law was so vaguely written it could make it a crime for a reporter to buy a bus ticket or a meal for someone traveling from out of town to talk about a crime.

After a one-hour hearing, Smith said the law's provisions ''violate the First Amendment on a variety of grounds and in a variety of ways.'' She issued a permanent injunction against enforcement and said she would issue a written ruling.

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Stone said he didn't know whether the state would appeal. But state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I), one of the law's sponsors, predicted it would end up before the US Supreme Court.

The law would prohibit a person who witnesses a crime from accepting money or other compensation for information until the trial ended. If the case never went to trial, the ban would expire a year after the event.

The maximum punishment for violators would be six months in jail and a fine of three times the amount requested or received.

Another portion of the law, challenged in a separate case, would prohibit jurors from selling their stories until 90 days after they are discharged from a case. A federal judge in Los Angeles barred enforcement of that measure and allowed publication of a book by former Simpson juror Michael Knox.

The ''checkbook journalism'' law was challenged on free-speech grounds, relying chiefly on a 1991 Supreme Court ruling that struck down New York's ''Son of Sam'' law, which prohibited convicted criminals from selling their stories.

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