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Judge tells Utah newspaper not to publish story

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  1. Prior Restraint

    NMU         UTAH         Prior Restraints         Jun 20, 2002    

Judge tells Utah newspaper not to publish story

  • An Ogden reporter had already agreed not to publish a story on the grounds of source confidentiality when a juvenile court issued a restraining order against her covering a child custody case.

A rare verbal restraining order still stands against a Utah newspaper reporter investigating procedures of the state’s Division of Child and Family Services.

Handed down by Ogden Juvenile Court Judge L. Kent Bachman June 4, the restraining order was issued in the midst of a juvenile custody hearing. Ogden Standard-Examiner reporter Cheryl Buchta was working with the child’s mother about possibly publishing a story about her case, but had signed a confidentiality agreement pledging not to release any personal information about the child without both parents’ full approval. Buchta had neither received the approval nor had she written a story when handed the order.

“In essence, the restraining order didn’t have any effect, because we’d already promised not to run the story,” said the paper’s managing editor, Ron Thornburg. He said the reporter’s previous confidentiality agreement is keeping the paper from publishing a story, not the restraining order.

In this light, the paper is questioning the purpose and necessity of the restraint and is likely to fight it in court, according to Thornburg.

The verbal restraint was issued after a caseworker became upset that the Standard-Examiner reporter was in the courtroom reporting on the case. Buchta was told to leave the courtroom for 15 minutes while the judge and parents conferred. When the reporter returned, the judge clearly told her not to pursue the story and specifically not to publish anything about the current proceedings.

The Standard-Examiner’s publisher, Scott Trundle, has said the paper “stands ready to challenge this and similar orders in the future on behalf of our readers.”

The Utah branch of the Society of Professional Journalists told the Standard-Examiner that prior restraint orders are rarely upheld upon appeal.

“The law abhors prior restraint. It is presumed unconstitutional,” said Jeff Hunt, a lawyer for the organization.

Donald W. Meyers, president of the Utah Headliners Chapter of SPJ, said the society would file a friend-of-the-court brief for the Standard-Examiner. He has already drafted a letter to Judge Bachman outlining the court’s apparent disregard for federal and state laws by issuing a presumptively unconstitutional prior restraint.

“In attempting to write about the struggles and successes of the juvenile justice system, Ms. Buchta was engaged in the very newsgathering and speech activities the First Amendment was designed to shield from prior restraints,” the letter reads. It pinpoints Bachman’s order as “a unilateral prior restraint imposed without regard for due process.”

Bachman was unavailable for comment, but a Utah court spokesman defended the restraint as “only an admonition from the bench not to run a story” and said the judge would be unlikely to take any action against the paper if the restraining order were to be violated.

“The judge does not appear as if he would take any action,” said Brett Johnson, general counsel for the court’s administrative office.

CL


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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