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Texas journalist challenges gag order in terrorism case

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A journalist in Lubbock, Texas, last week asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) to reverse…

A journalist in Lubbock, Texas, last week asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) to reverse a trial court gag order issued in the case of a Saudi citizen accused of attempting to bomb various targets, purportedly including the home of former President George W. Bush.

A U.S. District Court in Lubbock imposed the gag order in March, in the case of U.S. v. Aldawsari. The court's order stated that the "extraordinary amount of media coverage" surrounding the case created "a substantial likelihood that extrajudicial commentary could prejudice a fair trial." Therefore, the court ordered "that the parties, their representatives, or their attorneys of record SHALL NOT communicate with the news media concerning this case."

Stating that he is employed by a news media organization, James Clark filed, on his own behalf, a motion to intervene in the case and to have the court lift the gag order. The district court denied his requests last month.

In Clark's filing to the Fifth Circuit, he argues that he has standing to challenge the gag order's restrictions on communications with the news media and that the gag order is unconstitutional.

"The District Court has violated [Clark's] First Amendment rights and refuses the Petitioner any chance at intervention for the protection of his First Amendment rights, which further denies Petitioner his rights of Due Process under the Fifth Amendment," Clark's petition argues.

Clark's briefing does not dispute that the case has attracted widespread media attention. In fact, Clark's brief states that he has "personally respond[ed] to requests for assistance in covering the story from CNN, NBC News, and Raycom Media's New Media news division." Clark's filing asserts that the gag order has infringed on the ability of the press to gather news.

"The ability of the News Media to gather news has obviously been injured," Clark's briefing says.

Clark also argues that the gag order, as issued, is overly broad and too restrictive. Although gag orders are not "inherently" a violation of his rights, "by standards consistently set forth by the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit, a gag order cannot be abusive, overly broad, or unnecessary," the briefing argues. "Furthermore a gag order cannot fail to strike a balance between First Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights."

Clark's petition asks the court to reverse or modify the gag order. "Any restriction on Constitutionally protected communication should be the least restrictive measure possible, should be narrowly tailored, should be a reasonable remedial measure, and should fall short of prior restraints," he said.

The court does not have an expected date for a decision on Clark's motion.