High court won’t review restraint on reporting of taped talks
U.S. SUPREME COURT–The U.S. Supreme Court in early April refused to review a South Carolina judge’s order that barred pretrial reporting on a secretly recorded conversation between a murder defendant and his lawyer. The justices without comment turned away a newspaper’s arguments that the judge’s 1997 prior restraint on publication was unconstitutional.
B.J. Quattlebaum was indicted in March 1996 for several crimes including murder, assault and battery and armed robbery. While imprisoned at the Lexington County Detention Center, a conversation between Quattlebaum and his former attorney was surreptitiously recorded, allegedly by a sheriff’s sergeant. The videotape was later given to a Columbia television station and the circuit court in Lexington prohibited all local media from reporting on or airing the videotape. The (Columbia) State, which had been faxed a copy of the order by the court, appealed the order to the state Supreme Court in Columbia.
In August 1998, a 4-1 majority of the state Supreme Court affirmed the prior restraint. The court determined that the media’s First Amendment right of free speech was outweighed by accused killer B.J. Quattlebaum’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and that the prior restraint was necessary to protect that right.
The court noted that although other remedial measures such as change of trial venue, postponement of trial, jury instructions or jury sequestration might have mitigated the effects of pretrial publicity, “the only measure to ensure Quattlebaum’s fundamental right to a fair trial was imposition of the prior restraint.”
The State filed a petition for rehearing in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which was denied in September 1998. The State then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that there was no “factual support” for the prior restraint.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in an amicus curiae brief in support of the newspaper’s petition that the U.S. Supreme Court should seize the opportunity to reaffirm and clarify the exacting test that assures the First Amendment rights of the press and the public will not be eviscerated. (Ex Parte: The State Record Co., Inc.; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)