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Order modified in O.J. civil trial

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Order modified in O.J. civil trial10/21/96 CALIFORNIA--A California appellate court in September modified orders issued by the judge presiding over…

Order modified in O.J. civil trial

10/21/96

CALIFORNIA–A California appellate court in September modified orders issued by the judge presiding over the O.J. Simpson civil trial in an attempt to prevent repetition of the “circus atmosphere” that surrounded the criminal proceedings. A group of media organizations had contested the orders.

In August, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki imposed a gag order barring all trial participants from publicly discussing the case or “whether the defendant did or did not commit the homicides.” Fujisaki also barred television cameras, still photographers and sketch artists from the courtroom, and sealed transcripts from a status conference that took place in chambers prior to the imposition of the gag order.

The state Court of Appeal in Santa Monica rejected the media group’s contention that the gag order constituted a prior restraint because it did not order the media “to do or refrain from doing, anything.” However, the court recognized that the media had standing to challenge the order because “it may significantly impair their ability to gather news.” The court held that Fujisaki’s order restricting the speech of “witnesses under the control of counsel” was too vague, and prohibiting expression of opinion about the court, including the trial proceedings, was “obviously overbroad.”

The court upheld Fujisaki’s ban on broadcast and still cameras in the courtroom, but ordered that a closed-circuit live audio feed that cannot be recorded be available to an off-site pressroom. The court vacated a provision of the media plan barring sketch artists from the courtroom and from sketching from memory outside the courtroom. However, the court stated that sketch artists may not depict likenesses of jurors and potential jurors. Additionally, the court ordered the transcripts from the pre-gag order status conference to be unsealed.

While noting that Simpson’s criminal trial “was among the most intensely publicized and reported judicial proceedings in American history,” the court stated that the right to have a case tried before a fair and impartial jury, and the right of a free press to gather, report and disseminate information, were “two of the most essential rights in our society.”

The media organizations that filed the appeal include The Associated Press, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and the Los Angeles Times. (Cable News Network v. Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Los Angeles)