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State high court suspends prior restraint on news coverage

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  1. Prior Restraint
The Ohio Supreme Court has temporarily lifted a judge's order that would have barred journalists from reporting on a public…

The Ohio Supreme Court has temporarily lifted a judge's order that would have barred journalists from reporting on a public trial that begins next week. The stay, issued after the Toledo Blade petitioned the high court, will remain in effect until the appeal is fully briefed and argued, which according to the court's schedule could take 50 days.

Two defendants facing charges over the death of a child are slated to have separate nonconcurrent trials. The judge did not want publicity from the first trial to be seen and heard by potential jurors in the second trial, which was scheduled to start one week later. The order came at the request of the second defendant.

Trial court Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld in Napoleon, Ohio, has said reporters can attend the Feb. 1 trial of Jayme Schwenkmeyer, a mother charged with the involuntary manslaughter of her 13-month-old daughter, but they cannot report on the proceedings until the jury is chosen in the trial of the mother's boyfriend, David Knepley, who was also charged in the death.

The order came at the start of the initial trial of the mother, which ended quickly in a mistrial in December. The order stayed in effect for the retrial, but the Blade was unaware of the order until mid-January. When it asked the court to rescind the order, the judge said, according to the Blade complaint, that "in his view the applicable test for entering a prior restraint is whether the press’ rights to report immediately would jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

The Blade argued that the judge's findings that the interests of the press and public were “derivative” and “abstract” is contrary to the Ohio Supreme Court's rulings in prior restraint cases, which found that the interest in openness is "direct as opposed to abstract or derivative."

The trial judge had "entered the December 4, 2009 Order without any evidence or specific findings at all, much less evidence and findings sufficient to establish that there were no alternatives to the terms of the Order and that the Order was absolutely necessary to serve a compelling public interest," the Blade argued.

The Blade asked the high court to overturn the prior restraint before Monday, when the trial will begin. The high court voted 6-1 to temporarily lift the restraint — the dissenting judge said she would have invalidated the gag order permanently.