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Gag order overturned in school desegregation case

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Gag order overturned in school desegregation case04/08/96 LOUISIANA--A gag order forbidding the East Baton Rouge School Board and its employees…

Gag order overturned in school desegregation case

04/08/96

LOUISIANA–A gag order forbidding the East Baton Rouge School Board and its employees to speak about any aspects of plans the Board will submit to modify a 40-year-old school desegregation plan was overturned in mid-March by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.).

The court reversed an early-March order imposed by the federal District Court in Baton Rouge on the grounds that the order unconstitutionally intruded upon news agencies’ First Amendment newsgathering rights.

The order silenced members of the Board, the Superintendent, the Board’s attorneys, and twenty-three specifically named staff members and employees. A later court order then directed the school board to hold private meetings to develop the desegregation plan proposal, and directed that all meetings and any drafts of the plans remain secret.

The appeals court found that the order mandating the silence of the Board members and other trial participants was a prior restraint on the named parties, which in turn restrained the news media’s ability to receive information and ideas. The strong government interest needed to permit circumvention of such First Amendment rights was simply not present in this case, the court held.

The later trial court order, which mandated not only that the Board meet in private session but also that “all of the above private sessions and all preliminary versions of the draft [of the desegregation plan] remain confidential and private,” also was unconstitutional, the appellate court noted. The appeals court also found the order invalid on the grounds that the lower court imposed it without considering whether it complied with Louisiana’s Open Records Law, or showing compelling reasons for preempting Louisiana law. (Davis v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board; Media Counsel: Jack Weiss, Baton Rouge)