The judge in the trial of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal case just lifted the gag order that had prohibited defendants from talking to the press. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:
(Superior Court Judge Jerry) Baxter granted a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking to remove gag orders on the APS defendants that were made a part of their bonds. The orders restricted the administrators and educators from talking to the media and public about the case.
Tom Clyde, a lawyer for the AJC and WSB-TV, said “a core part of being an American citizen” is a defendant’s right to profess his or her innocence.
Quinn countered that the defendants agreed to the condition in exchange for getting their bonds reduced. “This was something they did knowingly and voluntarily,” he said.
So, the judge asked, they could either post bonds of several million dollars or agree not to talk about the case?
“I’m striking that,” he said.
The gag order limited the press from covering the story fairly by giving prosecutors a monopoly on access to reporters.
Gag orders are considered a form of “prior restraint” — a serious abridgment of freedom of the press. However, they aren’t necessarily viewed as unconstitutional since the U.S. Constitution guarantees both a right to a free press as well as a right to a fair trial.
The Supreme Court generally holds that gag orders must directly lead to a more fair trial for defendants in order to uphold any restrictions on press coverage.
Given that standard, it’s hard to see how the gag order in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case would lead to a more fair trial for the defendants.
The AJC and WSB deserve praise for paying their lawyers to fight the gag order. They are owned by the same company, Cox Communications — a reminder that bigger isn’t always badder when it comes to media outlets.