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Court should not hold Sun-Sentinel and its reporters in contempt for publishing legally obtained information

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On Tuesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 30 media organizations urged a circuit court in Florida…

Update: The School Board’s petition to invoke contempt proceedings against the Sun-Sentinel and its reporters was dismissed on May 13, 2019. This decision comes nine months after Judge Scherer of the Broward Circuit Court held a hearing on the contempt petition in August of 2018.

On Tuesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 30 media organizations urged a circuit court in Florida to dismiss a petition by the School Board of Broward County to hold The Sun-Sentinel and two of its reporters in contempt for publishing an article containing information from a report that the school board had released to the public.

The report, commissioned by the Broward County public school system, detailed the school system’s interactions with student Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people in a Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Sections of the report that a judge had ordered the school board to redact before the document was released publicly remained viewable in the version that the school board uploaded to its public website, allowing the Sun-Sentinel’s reporters — and any member of the public — to access the full report.

The unredacted report revealed two instances in which the school system had failed to comply with federal and state laws governing students with disabilities — information that the school board alleges the newspaper knew a court had directed remain private, but still published in violation of court orders.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the Reporters Committee argues that the Sun-Sentinel and its reporters should not be held in contempt for publishing information that it obtained legally and that the school board released in a format that allowed anyone to access the portions intended to be redacted.

Numerous legal precedents, including rulings from the Supreme Court, establish that “[t]he First Amendment prohibits the punishment of a media outlet for the publication of information lawfully obtained by its journalists on a matter of public concern,” the brief states. “Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly made crystal clear that it is the government’s burden to safeguard information — not the news media’s burden to refrain from publication — that does not belong in the public domain.”

The reporting in question is also about an issue of high public interest, the Reporters Committee argues. Amid a disturbing wave of school shootings throughout the nation, the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School continues to “raise serious issues of school security, weapons safety and regulation, and student mental health,” the brief states.

According to the brief, the report “may help answer lingering questions regarding how the school district treated Cruz during his years in the public school system … Parents, students, teachers, other public education officials — every member of the public — may learn important lessons that could help prevent recurrences of this deeply tragic shooting.”

The media coalition’s full brief is available here.