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Judge explains temporary trial coverage ban in high court brief

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  1. Prior Restraint
An Ohio judge told the state Supreme Court on Monday that his decision in January to temporarily ban media coverage…

An Ohio judge told the state Supreme Court on Monday that his decision in January to temporarily ban media coverage on a manslaughter trial was made to ensure that an unbiased jury was seated for the second defendant in the case, The Toledo Blade reported.

In a brief to the Ohio Supreme Court, Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld said he took into account the difficulties of assembling impartial juries for Jayme Schwenkmeyer and her boyfriend and co-defendant David E. Knepley, who were charged in the death of her infant daughter. Reporters were allowed to attend the proceedings, but told not to report on the trial until Knepley's trial began a week later.

Muehlfeld's brief said the pretrial coverage of the case in the rural community of Napoleon, Ohio, and the role of the Internet in making information about the case widely available meant finding impartial jurors might be difficult.

“These facts came together to form a consistent picture of a rural, thinly populated county where many of the alternatives for assuring [the defendant] a fair, appeal-proof trial, short of a temporary, prior restraint of the press, were unlikely to work,” the brief said.

The Blade challenged the constitutionality of the order and the Ohio Supreme Court lifted the ban until after all briefs and arguments could be heard in the appeal. Muehlfeld then ordered that both trials be postponed pending the court’s ruling.

“[The brief] explicitly seeks a dramatic change in the constitutional rules, based on the judge's personal view that the Internet has changed everything else, so it should change the Constitution as well,” John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Blade, told the paper.

Muehlfeld's attorneys agreed with The Blade that his order was based upon speculation, but said that in this case the speculation was warranted.

The brief said that “once a horse does bolt, it will then be too late,” quoting a 2008 Texas decision. “The horse will have ‘gone for a gallop down the information superhighway.’”

In a brief supporting Muehlfeld, Knepley’s attorney said that while the media plays an important role in oversight of the courts, that “does not elevate First Amendment considerations above all other freedoms, individually or collectively, contained in the Bill of Rights.”