By Scott Dolan
At first I was confused when Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz issued his order banning news reporters from reporting anything witnesses said in the criminal case against a well-known Maine attorney.
But the judge said it again when I stood in the courtroom and asked him to clarify. Did he mean to restrict the use of cameras? Or did he mean to restrict me as a staff writer for the Portland Press Herald and a member of the public?
“I’m prohibiting you, by order, from reporting any of the information presented by any witness other than the lawyers,” Moskowitz said to me, according to the official transcript of the Jan. 5 court hearing in a state court in Portland.
The judge added that reporters were also banned from reporting anything said by the defendant, attorney Anthony Sineni III, who was there taking a plea deal to reduce felonies to misdemeanor charges of assault and disorderly conduct.
Courtrooms are the cornerstones of what make this country work. They are supposed to be the place where our rights are guaranteed and everyone’s treated equally under the law. Transparency ensures our neighbors, friends and family can’t be convicted or incarcerated in secret. It also ensures the wealthy and politically connected don’t get special treatment outside of public scrutiny.
After 16 years in the daily newspaper business, many of them as a reporter covering courts, I’ve never heard a judge issue an order like the one Moskowitz issued last month.
The Portland Press Herald, obviously, defied the judge’s order. After consulting with the newspaper’s managing editor, Steve Greenlee, and its attorney, Sigmund Schutz, a story appeared on the website with my byline.
“There is a 100 percent chance that the order is unlawful,” Schutz told me that evening, and I quoted him in the story saying that.
The story also quoted courtroom testimony from Sineni’s ex-girlfriend, whom he had been accused of assaulting before the domestic felony charge was dismissed as part of the plea deal. It explained that the Portland Press Herald understood the judge’s order not to quote Sineni’s ex-girlfriend but that the newspaper refused to comply.
Within minutes after the story posted online, readers began emailing me offering bail money. Funny.
I wouldn’t say that I was overly concerned about being found in contempt of court and being jailed up to 30 days by Maine’s court rules. But I did arrange for a friend to take care of my dogs just in case.
The story touched off an outcry from First Amendment experts, who condemned the judge’s order. National media picked up the story the next day.
What the judge attempted to do in his order is referred to among constitutional law experts as prior restraint or pre-publication censorship. Such orders restricting the media’s free speech are usually only upheld in extreme cases of national security, such as in wartime situations where numbers of troops or troop locations are in question.
Moskowitz set a hearing to reopen Sineni’s case two days after the plea deal, rescinded his order in regard to the media and issued a personal apology to me.
Just as I’ve never heard a judge order reporters not to report on something happening in a public court proceeding, I’ve also never heard a judge call on me by name to apologize in open court. He said he made a mistake and ordered a recording of Sineni’s plea deal hearing transcribed and made available to the public.
Two days later, Sineni was arrested again on new criminal charges for violating the terms of his plea deal that had allowed him to avoid jail.
Scott Dolan is a staff writer with the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.