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Reporters Committee urges reversal of Florida prior restraint

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 17 other news organizations Thursday urged a Florida appeals court to…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 17 other news organizations Thursday urged a Florida appeals court to quash as unconstitutional a rare “prior restraint” order issued by the trial judge in the case of Justin Barber, accused of murdering his wife.

Judge Robert K. Mathis, of the Florida Circuit Court, issued orders on July 30 and August 9 threatening a Florida news organization, First Coast News, with criminal penalties if it published information from Barber’s grand jury transcript.

First Coast News had obtained the transcript from public officials in the State Attorney’s Office, who disclosed it voluntarily as a public record.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday with Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal, the Reporters Committee argued that Mathis’s orders violated the First Amendment rights of the news media.

“Prior restraints are fundamentally at odds with the concept of a free press,” the news organizations argued in their brief. They pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has never upheld a prior restraint against the news media. “With each passing day that the prior restraint remains in effect, the press’s ability to report news to the public is unlawfully restrained,” the brief adds.

“This prior restraint is just the latest in a series of court cases nationwide where judges have ignored decades of First Amendment jurisprudence,” said Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director of the Reporters Committee. “The U.S. Supreme Court could not have been more clear that what the judge did in this case is illegal.”

The rare attempt by a judge to censor news coverage in advance of publication drew the ire of media organizations across the country. Those joining the brief included The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, CBS, Hearst, and several Florida television stations.

On Aug. 9 –- the day he issued the second prior restraint order –- Judge Mathis also took the unusual step of asking Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint a special prosecutor to determine whether criminal laws were violated in the release of the transcript.

That drew a sharp response from George Gabel, a Holland & Knight attorney who represents First Coast News.

“Our client . . . is dismayed that a sitting judge has actively sought to have it prosecuted for the routine act of conveying public information furnished by the government,” Gabel said in an Aug. 12 letter to Bush.

The court of appeals has not indicated when it will rule on the matter.

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Documents available:

Media organizations amicus brief: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20040813-multimedia.pdf

Letters to Gov. Bush from Judge Mathis and First Coast News: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/extra/mm_letters_to_gov_bush.pdf