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Contempt For Reporting The News

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sign, with the partial digital message 'as one of the top schools in the nation!'
photo courtesy Coral Springs Talk

Tomorrow is the first day of classes for the Broward County Public Schools in South Florida. The first lesson of the year has already begun.

It is a unit on threats, intimidation and avoiding responsibility, taught by the local school board and its in-house legal counsel.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel has covered the events surrounding and following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida since February, as have most media outlets in the area. So it was no surprise that the paper’s staff was eager to examine a report regarding the education of the gunman, Nikolas Cruz.

The school district released a redacted version of this report, with nearly two-thirds of the text blacked out, in response to Judge Elizabeth Scherer’s order. Cruz’s attorneys and the high school’s leadership both argued that the text should not be released to the public in full in order to protect Cruz’s privacy, and the judge agreed.

Unfortunately for the school district, its procedure to implement the judge’s order was faulty. A reader tipped off the Sun Sentinel, via Facebook message, that anyone could copy and paste the text into a new Microsoft Word document and read the entire report.

Reporters at the Sun Sentinel reviewed the document and then rewrote their story about the district’s report, providing a detailed account of Cruz’s time in the school system. The resulting disclosures reflected poorly on the district, especially the findings that school officials misstated Cruz’s options, leading him to refuse special education services, and that the district did not follow through on Cruz’s request to return to the special education facility he had previously attended. Cruz received no special education services or school counseling at all in the 14 months leading up to the shooting, the report found.

The Sun Sentinel was the first media outlet to cover the story, but since the report was freely available, it wasn’t the only one. The glitch was publicized on Twitter, and a local ABC affiliate also reported the story.

School board members have said that they weren’t consulted before the board’s in-house general counsel, Barbara Myrick, filed a motion seeking to have the Sun Sentinel and two of its reporters cited for contempt for reporting the news. In fact, some board members reportedly discovered that they were filing that motion through a report in the Sun Sentinel itself. But while the school board claimed clean hands in the matter of filing this motion, it has not (as of this writing) ordered Myrick to withdraw it. Thus the threats made in the name of the board, and by extension on behalf of the rest of us Broward County citizens – who should be concerned only that a tragedy like Parkland never happens again in our community – have been allowed to stand.

The board’s filing alleged that the Sun Sentinel intentionally published information it knew the judge had ordered to be kept secret. The paper, rightly, has pushed back. Sun Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson said, “The school board’s attempts to threaten the Sun Sentinel and keep it from reporting on its missteps with the Parkland shooter will not work.” The paper’s attorney, in responding to the school board’s contempt motion, has asked the court to find the school board in violation of a state law that forbids public agencies from filing motions with no legal merit in an effort to punish organizations exercising their First Amendment rights.

Legally, the board’s action has no prayer of surviving appeals, even if Judge Scherer were foolish or egotistical enough to endorse it. The news media could not have been subject to the court’s redaction order under longstanding legal precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the 1976 case Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, that a Nebraska state trial judge’s order to prevent members of the press from publishing or broadcasting accounts of confessions the accused made to the police violated the First Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth. Since then, the idea of implementing “prior restraint” on the media has been a legal nonstarter. The school board, and certainly its general counsel, should know as much.

As Tom Julin, an attorney who practices media law, observed: “It looks like the School Board just made a mistake and is trying to deal with its own mistake by asking that the Sun Sentinel be held in contempt.”

The motion to cite the Sun Sentinel and its reporters for contempt serves no practical purpose, other than to try to intimidate the local media. It remains to be seen whether the paper will succeed in turning the tables by getting the judge to sanction the board instead of the press.

Myrick, who claimed she filed the motion to punish the press without first consulting her client – the school board – should be fired, and in my view should never be hired to work for another public agency in the state of Florida again. And local voters should keep this incident in mind at the next round of school board elections if the board doesn’t promptly withdraw and disavow the motion. I can promise you that this particular Broward County voter will do just that.

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