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People v. Woodyard

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  1. Prior Restraint

Court: District Court of Adams County, Colorado

Date Filed: April 28, 2022

Update: On April 28, 2022, the district court granted The Denver Gazette’s motion to lift the unconstitutional prior restraint, pending government review. The next day, the attorney general’s office said it would not appeal the court’s decision. The Denver Gazette is now allowed to reported on the inadvertently disclosed records.

Background: On April 14, 2022, Denver Gazette reporter Julia Cardi asked the clerk’s office at the Adams County, Colorado, courthouse if she could inspect “all publicly available records” in the cases of each of the police officers and paramedics charged in connection with the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain.

A staff member in the clerk’s office gave Cardi records related to those cases, including some filings in the case of police officer Nathan Woodyard that were supposed to be kept under seal. Cardi began reporting a story based in part on the contents of those records she was given, but after reaching out to the attorney general’s office and Woodyard’s attorneys, the government sought and a county judge granted a prior restraint that not only barred The Denver Gazette from reporting on the lawfully obtained records, but also required the newspaper to destroy them.

The Denver Gazette then filed a motion to vacate the court’s prior restraint.

Our Position: The district court should grant The Gazette’s motion to vacate and reverse its order barring the news outlet from reporting on the records.

  • The order constitutes an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech and violates the First Amendment.
  • A prior restraint barring a news organization from publishing newsworthy information poses a grave danger not just to The Gazette, but to all members of the press — and by extension to the public.
  • Disclosure of these materials to the public would not endanger the state’s interest in the defendants’ right to a fair trial and impartial jury.

Quote: “We strongly urge the court to vacate its order that not only bars The Denver Gazette from reporting on lawfully obtained court records about a criminal case of significant public interest, but also requires the news outlet to destroy them,” said Rachael Johnson, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Colorado. “This is undoubtedly an unconstitutional prior restraint, which is among the most serious threats to a free press. Reporting on judicial records — even those a court unintentionally makes public — is clearly protected by the First Amendment.”