Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Media outlets challenge federal judge's gag order in coal executive's criminal case

Local and national media outlets Monday "urged a federal judge to withdraw a gag order that has blocked access to court records in a criminal case filed against longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship," Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette, which joined the legal action with The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, NPR and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Don Blankenship
Blankenship was indicted last month on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 26.

"The media coalition asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to reconsider her order, which also prohibits parties in the case, potential trial witnesses and potentially families of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster from talking to the media," Ward writes. Sean McGinley, a Charleston attorney representing the media groups, filed a motion that "argued that federal courts must give the media outlets an opportunity to be heard before they restrict access to court records or prohibit parties from discussing cases with reporters."

The gag order "interferes with the news media’s ability to gather information needed to report on the case, violating the media’s constitutionally protected rights under the First Amendment, McGinley said in the motion," Ward writes.

The motion said: “A reporter’s First Amendment right to publish is meaningless if it is prevented from gathering news in the first instance. In this case, the court’s gag and sealing order prevents the news media intervenors and other members of the press and public from obtaining any meaningful information regarding this newsworthy case from court records and from those most knowledgeable about it, the participants and those affected by the underlying events."

"The public interest in access is especially strong in the case at bar because such access promotes trustworthiness in the judicial process, better understanding of the judicial system and ultimately, fairness," the motion said. (Read more)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A gag absolutely should be a last resort instead of a first resort. The judge controls the courtroom and all of the actors in it, but not the media. With 29 people dead,and charges of willful negligence of mine safety regulations, this trial is of great public interest well beyond West Virginia. NPR's recent series on flagrant violations in Kentucky mines certainly brings it close to my home.