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Judge moved by report on homeless to drop contempt charges

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  1. Prior Restraint
After holding a reporter in contempt of court for airing an interview with a potential juror in the high-profile trial…

After holding a reporter in contempt of court for airing an interview with a potential juror in the high-profile trial of polygamist sect leader and convicted rapist Warren Jeffs, Judge James L. Shumate found that reporter Katie Baker’s unrelated Nov. 20 report on a homeless program satisfied his mandate that she produce a human-interest news report to clear the charges.

Shumate held Baker in contempt after she inadvertently violated an order prohibiting disclosure of information on prospective jurors in airing a Sept. 10, 2007 interview with a potential juror. Baker said this was the first such order she had encountered by a court and that this was the first high-profile trial she covered. However, Shumate said she could clear the offense by producing a story on a "public need." He stated the story need not be broadcast, but that she had to provide him with a DVD of such a report within 90 days.

The widespread implications such a ruling could have on the media — allowing a judge to compel speech from a reporter in violation of long-held First Amendment rights — led the Reporters Committee to send Shumate a letter urging him to rethink the contempt charge. The letter pointed to the longstanding First Amendment support courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have given to prohibit compelled speech. Shumate also received a letter from the Radio-Television News Directors Association making similar arguments.

Baker appealed the contempt charge and the story continued to gather steam with reports from the national media. Shumate’s abrupt change of heart after viewing Baker’s completely unrelated report on a Salt Lake Valley homeless program seems a convenient excuse to deflect the shower of criticism for an inappropriate order that never should have issued. Telling an independent media to "report" a government-ordered story belies the entire framework our nation’s press has operated under from day one. While clearing Baker of her contempt charge was the right thing to do, Shumate’s too-cute-by-half interpretation of her unrelated report as a fulfillment of his ill-considered order was not the correct means to that end.