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Media organizations asks judge to dismiss gag order imposed by prosecutors

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Two Georgia media organizations are asking a judge to dismiss an unusual gag order placed on 35 Atlanta Public School…

Two Georgia media organizations are asking a judge to dismiss an unusual gag order placed on 35 Atlanta Public School employees charged with altering standardized tests in a widespread cheating scandal.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News (WSB-TV) filed a joint motion to lift the gag orders on those charged in the cheating scandal. District Attorney Paul Howard agreed to lower the defendants’ bail bond amounts if the defendants agreed not to talk to reporters.

However, the defendants' lawyers – and the District Attorney’s office – are still allowed to speak to the media.

The unusual agreement is “inherently coercive” and violates the defendants’ First Amendment rights, said Tom Clyde, the news organizations’ lawyer.

“A defendant should not have to choose between their First Amendment rights or jail,” Clyde said in an e-mail.

In late March, 35 Atlanta-area educators – including a former superintendent – were indicted by a grand jury in a cheating scandal that affected 58 public schools. Administrators were accused of changing answers on standardized tests and encouraging students to cheat since 2005.

The grand jury also recommended the defendants’ bonds be set at hundreds of thousands of dollars – an excessive amount for this type of crime, Clyde said – and Howard offered to present a reduced bond amount to the judge in exchange for the gag order. By agreeing to the gag order, defendants would not have to stay in jail awaiting bond hearings, Clyde said.

Before the indictments, Clyde said teachers were coming forward to news organizations to discuss the scandal. Now, they are unable to discuss the charges against them, which does not make "a level playing field," he said.

Moreover, the gag orders were entered without any hearing or evidence of prejudicial publicity that could affect the trials, which is not consistent with Georgia law, Clyde’s motion states.

“While this case has undoubtedly been the subject of significant news reporting, it is well-established that the mere fact that this case has received publicity, even if widespread, does not establish such a threat,” the motion stated.

When prosecutors with the District Attorney’s office announced the indictments, they held a press conference where parents and students told reporters how the alleged cheating affected them. It was striking that Howard would hold such a press conference and at the same time prevent the defendants from speaking to the media, Clyde said.

The District Attorney’s office did not return calls seeking comment.