In re The Wall Street Journal

February 20, 2015

Donald Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards and securities fraud, among other things, stemming from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 people. Immediately following the indictment, a federal judge ordered the parties, attorneys, witnesses, families of victims and others from making any statements to the media, and restricted all access to filings in the case. A coalition of media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, and the Charleston Gazette, intervened to overturn the restrictive orders, but the judge denied the request and found that news coverage was sufficiently likely to prejudice Blankenship’s right to a fair trial. The media intervenors appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Reporters Committee and a coalition of other media organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the appeal, arguing that the restrictive orders are unconstitutional, because, among other reasons, they are based on mere speculation that widespread coverage about the trial would prevent Blankenship from receiving a fair trial, rather than specific findings, as required by the First Amendment. The Reporters Committee also argued that the orders swept too broadly, effectively prohibiting anyone with personal knowledge of the mine explosion from talking to the media, even if the resulting stories would not be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant.