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Arkansas judge fines newspaper for publishing photos

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         ARKANSAS         Prior Restraints         May 30, 2000    

Arkansas judge fines newspaper for publishing photos

  • The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette claims that the First Amendment trumps a state judge’s prior restraint against publication of photographs of juvenile defendant and his family taken outside of a courthouse.

A Fayetteville state court judge ruled on May 25 that Little Rock’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette must pay $100 for violating a prior restraint against publication of photographs.

Chancellor Stacey Zimmerman imposed the fine — the maximum penalty for the violation — against the state’s largest daily newspaper after it published two photographs of 12-year-old Michael Nichols and Nichols’ parents outside the courthouse after a May 18 court appearance. Michael Nichols has been charged with shooting Prairie Grove police Sgt. Greg Lovett on May 11.

Zimmerman also announced that she would close the remainder of the proceedings in the Nichols case. According to the Associated Press, Zimmerman said that she would distribute a press release describing what occurred during the closed court proceedings.

Democrat-Gazette executive editor Griffin Smith Jr. and attorney John Tull told the AP that the newspaper would press an appeal of Zimmerman’s fine to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Smith said that he believed that the newspaper’s decision to defy the prior restraint was consistent with its rights under the First Amendment.

“Journalists are not above the law, but judges are not above the law either,” Smith said. “We believe Judge Zimmerman’s gag order is flagrantly unconstitutional and there is no lawful basis for her finding of contempt. . . . We did our best to explain this to her. Now it is up to the Arkansas Supreme Court to explain it to her.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has never approved a prior restraint of pure speech,” Tull told the wire service.

Zimmerman had earlier rebuffed an attempt by media organizations to intervene in the case for the limited purpose of protesting the prior restraint. Included along with the Democrat-Gazette in seeking to intervene were the AP, The (Springdale) Morning News, the Northwest Arkansas (Fayetteville) Times and the Arkansas Press Association.

Zimmerman issued her prior restraint on May 18, according to the AP. She announced at that time that the media could not disseminate the names or photographs of the defendant, including photographs taken outside of the courtroom, according to the AP. She later amended her order to exempt from its reach the publications of the defendant’s name and any photographs of him taken before the May 18 hearing.

After imposing the fine, Zimmerman said that the prior restraint was “narrowly tailored” to balance the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and the media’s First Amendment rights.


© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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