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Station appeals order banning airing of alleged abuse video

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  1. Prior Restraint
A television station in Hattiesburg, Miss., filed an emergency petition to the Mississippi Supreme Court Thursday to vacate a juvenile…

A television station in Hattiesburg, Miss., filed an emergency petition to the Mississippi Supreme Court Thursday to vacate a juvenile court's injunction prohibiting the station from airing video images of alleged child abuse from a juvenile detention center.

WDAM's petition states that it received a video tape from Tawana Lavada Bolton, a former employee of the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center, that depicts approximately six juveniles in physical altercations with detention center staff. Prior to airing the footage, WDAM acknowledged to Forrest County Youth Court prosecutor Pamela Castle that the station was in possession of the video. Castle swiftly requested and was granted a court injunction on Dec. 30 by the Youth Court, barring the broadcast of the tape.

WDAM responded on Jan. 5 with a motion to dissolve the injunction claiming it was procedurally and substantively improper. Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail held a hearing on the motion the next day and issued a final order granting injunctive relief on Jan. 11. The final order enjoined WDAM, Bolton and "any other person or agent of outlets that may come into possession of said videotapes . . . from disclosing, publishing or broadcasting the contents of said images or videotapes to any other person or agency."

The court said that "if newspapers lawfully obtain (emphasis added) pictures or names of juveniles, they may publish them" ("emphasis added" is in the opinion). But according to the court, Bolton's lack of authority to obtain the video meant that WDAM had unlawfully gained possession of the tape. Under the circumstances of the case, the court cautioned allowance of this type of unauthorized activity because it would give "unbridled license to record or videotape juveniles in the jurisdiction of the Youth Court," which would "seriously impair the rehabilitative goals and objectives of the Mississippi juvenile justice system" and would erode the confidentiality of the Youth Court records and proceedings. Although the station claimed the tape was a matter of public concern, the court stated that WDAM had not presented evidence of a "need" for disclosure of the video. The court also said that the video was an official court record involving a juvenile under the Youth Court's jurisdiction.

In its petition to the Mississippi Supreme Court, the station asserted that the order is an unconstitutional prior restraint on its ability to publish truthful information of public significance. WDAM argues the Youth Court makes "a futile effort to show a compelling state interest justifying prior restraint " and urges the Mississippi Supreme Court to apply "the most exacting scrutiny" in determining the court's validity in granting this restraint.

The station does not wish to disclose the names of the minors involved and agreed to blur their faces in the video, the petition said. WDAM wants to "alert the public to video evidence of a matter of extreme public importance and interest." WDAM states these identity protecting measures "actually negate the Youth Court's entire basis for prohibiting the broadcast of the video."

While the video footage has not been aired, WDAM's Attorney Leonard Van Slyke said in an interview that this case involves a "very important issue; the public has a right to see what is going on." The petition claims this issue is "urgent" and Van Slyke is hopeful that the "Mississippi Supreme Court will respond in a timely manner."