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Judge orders local reporter to do story or face jail

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Oct. 19, 2007  ·   A state judge in Utah told a local TV news reporter to produce a public…

Oct. 19, 2007  ·   A state judge in Utah told a local TV news reporter to produce a public service story as a consequence for unknowingly violating his order not to speak with potential jurors in the rape trial of a leader of a polygamist sect.

Katie Baker, a reporter with KUTV in Salt Lake City, said she was unaware of the judge’s order when she interviewed potential juror Mo Webb.

Nonetheless, Fifth District Judge James Shumate held Baker in contempt of court. Shumate said he would drop the contempt order if Baker agreed to perform his requested community service.

According to the judge, the public service story, which does not have to be aired on TV or even appear on the station’s Web site, must be completed within 90-days.

Should Baker fail to comply, she could face jail time with a maximum penalty of 30 days and be forced to pay a $1,000 fine.

The order and proposed consequence drew outrage from the TV station.

“We’re deeply concerned about the ruling, and we’re looking for clarification . . . to see if it’s even legal,” said Tanya Vea, the station’s news director. “I’ve never seen anything like this before and several people that I’ve spoken with since, in both the legal and journalism communities have said that this is a first.”

Baker is considering appealing the ruling, according to her attorney Jeff Hunt.

“Under well-settled Utah law, a party cannot be found in contempt of court unless two factual predicates are established,” Hunt said. “First, the party must have actual knowledge of the duty imposed by the court’s order. Second, the party must willfully and knowingly disobey the order. Here, there was no dispute on either element: Ms. Baker neither knew about the court’s no-contact nor intentionally violated it. Notwithstanding the court’s acceptance of these facts, it inexplicably still held Ms. Baker in contempt.”

Hunt also criticized the judge’s proposed remedy.

“It is difficult to conceive how a court, consistent with the First Amendment, can compel a news reporter to report a particular story and provide that story to the court upon penalty of contempt,” Hunt said.

Saira Anees

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