Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is joining a legal battle to lift a Dallas judge's gag order in the "Texas Seven" escape trial.
State District Judge Molly Francis placed a gag order on all trial participants, including witnesses, that prohibits them from discussing any aspect of the high-profile case with the news media. The death-penalty prosecution involves one of the seven escapees from the Connally prison who is charged in the Christmas Eve death of Aubrey Hawkins, an Irving, Texas, police officer. The story made news reports across the country.
"Courts should think long and hard before they shut off public access," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and an assistant managing editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "There doesn't appear to be any compelling reason to stop the free flow of information, and we urge the court to reverse its stance."
The Society and several other media organizations signed on to a friend-of-the-court legal brief filed Monday by The Dallas Morning News. The brief was filed to support the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case of Fort Worth Star-Telegram v. Francis.
The brief asks that Texas' highest criminal court reverse the judge's gag order because it violates free speech rights afforded in the Texas Constitution. Although judges may constitutionally impose gag orders, the legal brief argues that it is unnecessary and unconstitutional in this case because media coverage would not harm the judicial process. In addition, the judge in this case did not hold an evidentiary hearing on the gag order, and neither the prosecution nor the defendant, George Rivas, requested the order.
"The judge in this case failed to follow the procedural safeguards to ensure that the gag order was truly necessary under the circumstances," said SPJ First Amendment legal counsel Bruce Brown, of Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. "The Dallas Morning News' brief, which we were pleased to join, asks the state's highest criminal court to use the same test in evaluating gag orders that the Texas Supreme Court applies in civil cases. This would be a good law to establish and would hopefully result in the nullification of the trial court's ruling."
Other organizations that signed on to the legal brief are The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Inc., The Texas Daily Newspaper Association, The Texas Press Association and the Texas Association of Broadcasters.