Jailed reporter’s contempt conviction overturned
MISSISSIPPI–In mid-December, the Mississippi Supreme Court in Jackson unanimously overturned the contempt conviction of Cynthia Jeffries, a Delta Democrat Times reporter who had written about a criminal defendant’s juvenile record which had been discussed in open court.
“Obedience to the lower court would have damaged Jeffries’s right to free speech,” the court held. The prosecutor’s comments about the juvenile’s record were not secret because people in the courtroom had heard them and because “there was no duty on their part to keep the matter private,” according to the court.
The court noted that less extreme measures than ordering secrecy could have been taken. The trial judge could have simply reviewed the juvenile record for herself or she could have had counsel brief it for her in writing instead of discussing it in open court. However, once the trial judge had made the matter public, the court held that those in attendance, including the press, had a right to disseminate the information. The court concluded that in Mississippi, “protection of free speech is sacred and not to be dismissed lightly by trial judges.”
Shirley Byers, the circuit judge who had convicted Jeffries of criminal contempt, was defeated in her re-election bid as judge in November 1998 and will step down from office in January 1999. Byers was reprimanded in December 1998 by the State Commission on Judicial Performance for her actions in the Jeffries case and other matters.
In June 1997, Jeffries was arrested and jailed for four hours for violating an order issued by Byers not to publish information about a criminal defendant’s juvenile record that was discussed in open court during a sentencing hearing. On appeal, Jeffries’s position was supported by several news organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In its brief on appeal, the state conceded that Byers’ order was a presumptively invalid prior restraint and that Jeffries was “authorized to contest the order by disobeying it.” (Jeffries v. State of Mississippi; Media Counsel: Roy Campbell III, Greenville)