A California judge on Wednesday ordered The Ventura County Star to halt publication of an article about a man accused of killing a six-year-old-boy last year. The article contained information that was under seal but accidentally provided to The Star.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley issued the temporary gag until a hearing is held on December 18. The order provides that The Star may not “disclose, publicize, or disseminate, in any manner, the sealed (redacted) contents of the search warrant affidavits on file with this court.”
The Star fought for access to the warrants for more than a year, arguing that they are public records under California law. Riley agreed to produce heavily redacted versions of the warrants, but the clerk’s office accidentally provided unredacted copies to The Star. Defense attorneys, citing their client’s fair trial rights, then asked for the gag order.
Star Editor Joe Howry blasted the order in an article the paper published today, calling it “a blatant violation of the First Amendment” and noting that “no branch of government, including the judiciary, has the right to prior restraint of the publication of information, except in extreme situations such as war.”
Indeed, just six weeks ago, a unanimous panel of the California Court of Appeal overturned a similar gag order against The Orange County Register. That court cited the Supreme Court’s warning that prior restraints such as gag orders are the “most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights” and are permissible only in cases – involving the preservation of nuclear secrets, for instance – in which “the evil that would result from the reportage is both great and certain and cannot be militated by less intrusive measures.”
The prior restraint is especially bizarre, The Star reports, because the information covered by the gag order was broadcast by a local radio station last week. David Giles, an attorney for E.W. Scripps Co., which owns The Star, said “Obviously we will challenge this ruling.”