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Federal judge ungags witnesses in wrongful death suit

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Federal judge ungags witnesses in wrongful death suit

  • Journalist claimed gag order violated First Amendment rights of participants in lawsuit filed by a Colombian labor union against an Alabama coal company over the shooting deaths of three union employees.

Oct. 29, 2004 — An editor for a Latin American news Web site claimed victory Tuesday in his fight against a protective order forbidding anyone involved in a federal wrongful death suit against an American coal company over the killing of three workers in Colombia from talking about the case.

Stephen Flanagan Jackson, an associate editor for latinamericanpost.com, asked to intervene in the case in August after the trial judge imposed a broad gag order on all participants. Judge Karon O. Bowdre of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Ala., modified the order earlier this week so it now applies only to the attorneys involved.

“Her protective order was very broad and general, and it infringed on my rights as a member of the media and any individual’s right to talk to me about the case,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. The original order had a “chilling effect” on his sources and infringed on public’s right to know about a very important case, he said.

Alabama-based Drummond Co. Inc., is being sued over the 2001 execution-style murders of three of its mine workers in Colombia, labor leaders who were allegedly slain by paramilitary gunmen, according to Jackson. The suit was brought on behalf of the union and the families of the victims. Jackson said no one has been charged with the killings, nor was it likely that anyone would be.

“That’s why it’s so important that we know the facts, that the facts come out, and that there be a wide open, robust, uninhibited discussion of this situation, because so little is known by the American public” about the case, he said.

Jackson, who also teaches journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said he challenged the gag order in response to what he sees as an erosion of First Amendment rights by judges eager to issue blanket protective orders.

“The problem is, as I see it, judges are almost automatically issuing these protective orders or gag orders, and there’s not enough people in the press or the public standing up for their First Amendment rights, so therefore they gather more and more momentum and the judges continue to order protective or gag orders,” he said.

Jackson, who is not a lawyer, filed the petition himself, but was later represented for free by attorney Barry Ragsdale, and aided by University of Alabama law professor Wythe Holt. Jackson said the legal challenge relied heavily on Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared prior restraints to be presumptively unconstitutional and severely limited their use.

Jackson said he hopes Bowdre’s decision will serve as precedent to curtail the issuing of gag orders in both civil and criminal cases.

“Hopefully this will stem that flow [of gag orders] and give us all the First Amendment ammunition that we constantly need,” he said.

(Suarez v. Drummond Co., Inc.) KK


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