Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
Despite a judge recently modifying a gag order in the case of alleged theater shooter James Holmes, journalists are having a difficult time accessing records to report on the high-profile case.
“We get lots of tiny bits and pieces and have to paste these parts together to make sense out of what seems like a senseless mass shooting,” Denver reporter Rick Sallinger said.
Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester amended the sweeping gag order he issued three days after the July 20 theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., allowing the University of Colorado to consider fulfilling some 38 public records requests.
“To protect the integrity of the investigation and of the court proceedings, the Court has repeatedly been cautious in safeguarding any potentially confidential information,” Sylvester wrote in his order. “The Court has restricted the release of information for almost four months now, giving everyone involved adequate opportunity to prepare for the proper and authorized disclosure to the public.”
Before Sylvester's Nov. 17 order, the university cited the gag order as the reason why they could not fulfill public records requests. Now, the university is processing the requests one by one and released four requested documents last Wednesday.
The heavily-redacted documents include Holmes’ application for a security access card when he became a student and logs of when he used the badge to enter secured buildings on campus. Also included were two photos of Holmes, records of stipends he received from the National Institute of Health and a list of packages that were sent and picked up by Holmes.
Steve Zansberg, an attorney representing the Denver Post and other media outlets, said that despite the judge’s order, it will be difficult for the media to access certain records.
“There’s no longer a blanket prohibition on these records that relate to or concern James Holmes, but the university will have to respond to each of these requests document by document,” Zansberg said. “There are federal statutes and state exemptions that apply to certain documents that have been requested, like Mr. Holmes’ academic performance.”
The university said in a statement that it will not release specific information, such as Holmes’ academic records and e-mail messages between Holmes and faculty members or other students, because they are protected under student privacy laws. The campus police department will not release any documents because they are criminal justice records, the university said.
University records aren’t the only documents journalists have been pursuing. There are many court documents that journalists are “quite interested in seeing” that remain sealed, Zansberg said.
“There’s been a series of rulings in unsealing the court file itself over time from the initial sealing order that was entered the day after the shooting,” Zansberg said. “Since then, the court has gradually released more and more information as a result of the news media efforts to get the court file unsealed.”
But highly-sought information, such as affidavits of probable cause, the arrest warrant and witness interviews, may not be released until the preliminary hearing in mid-January, Zansberg said.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Colorado - Open Courts Compendium: A. In general
· Colorado - Open Government Guide: 2. Discussion of each exemption.