The Supreme Court of Ohio has prohibited the enforcement of a gag order banning the news media from reporting on a criminal trial until a jury has been seated in the second trial of another defendant charged in the same incident.
Under Henry County trial court Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld’s gag order, reporters were allowed to attend Jayme Schwenkmeyer’s trial for the involuntary manslaughter of her infant daughter, but could not publish or broadcast stories on the trial until a jury was selected for the subsequent trial of her boyfriend, David E. Knepley.
In a unanimous decision, the court held that the gag order was "patently unconstitutional." It stated that Judge Muehlfeld had wrongly assumed that the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial should be given priority over the First Amendment right of free speech and press, when the court’s responsibility is to protect both rights.
"The judge’s refusal to accord equal importance and priority to the media’s First Amendment rights was thus plainly erroneous," the court wrote.
The court also found that Judge Muehlfeld should have held an evidentiary hearing before issuing the gag order, particularly since it was based in part on the assumption that negative pretrial publicity would taint the jury. Relying on "conclusory, speculative assertions" that pretrial publicity would deprive a criminal defendant of the right to a fair trial is not sufficient to overcome the First Amendment right of access, the court said.
Judge Muehlfeld was also found to have dismissed alternatives to the gag order, such as a change of venue, for reasons that were not supported by evidence or prior case law. The court also faulted the judge for not considering alternatives like in-depth questioning and sequestration of jurors.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief in the case.