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The New England First Amendment Coalition has expressed “grave concerns” about a Rhode Island judge’s recent order permanently banning reporters from speaking to jurors after a high-profile murder trial, calling the judge’s order overbroad and unconstitutional.
Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel concluded a three-week trial in March by directing all members of the public, including journalists, to refrain from contacting any of the jurors in the case.
“If you see them at Walmart, do not acknowledge that you know them,” said Judge Vogel, according to a court transcript. “In other words, I do not allow people to contact jurors.”
The Providence Journal filed a lawsuit last month alleging that this order violated the First Amendment. The newspaper also challenged the judge’s decision to deny the public release of the juror’s names, arguing in its complaint that the “press and the public are presumptively entitled to access judicial documents and to speak with any juror who is willing to speak with the media.”
NEFAC supported this position in an April 30 letter to Judge Maureen Keough, who will hear the Journal’s arguments, and plans to be represented in the case to help protect the First Amendment rights at stake.
On behalf of the coalition and the New England Newspaper & Press Association, attorney Robert A. Bertsche explained that orders similar to the ones given by Judge Vogel have been rejected by other courts.
“Post-trial access to jurors in a criminal trial is essential to the press and public’s right to report to the public about the workings of the judicial system,” wrote Bertsche, a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors and a partner at Prince Lobel Tye LLP .
According to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Bertsche wrote, depriving the media of an opportunity to ask jurors if they wish to be interviewed is “clearly erroneous as a matter of law.”
A hearing on the Journal’s lawsuit is scheduled for May 14. Until then, the judge’s orders will continue to violate the First Amendment rights of citizens, including journalists covering the judicial system, said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director.
In a statement given to WPRI-Providence, Silverman said: “We have the right to ask questions. It’s a freedom protected by the First Amendment and essential to our understanding of the court system. This gag order amounts to a prior restraint which our constitution simply doesn’t allow.”
NEFAC’s involvement in this case is the latest effort by the coalition to protect the First Amendment rights of Rhode Islanders.
Last month, NEFAC called for First Amendment safeguards in legislation that would expose media organizations to criminal prosecution for publishing newsworthy photos depicting nudity. The coalition also recently advocated for broader access to Dept. of Safety public records and expressed concern over proposed rules for the release of Dept. of Administration documents.
Learn more about NEFAC’s work in Rhode Island here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
here.Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation
Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.