SPJ condemns “prior restraint” ordering The Trentonian to not publish about child abuse case
December 14, 2016
Lynn Walsh, SPJ National President, 614-579-7937, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com
Miriam Ascarelli, SPJ New Jersey Pro President, 862-576-1256, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Professional Chapter of SPJ condemn the actions of Superior Court Judge Craig Corson who, in October, issued a temporary injunction prohibiting The Trentonian from publishing information from a child abuse complaint that could have shed light on a story about a 5-year-old boy from Trenton, N.J., who went to school with drugs in his lunchbox.
The action constitutes “prior restraint” which has been rejected by the United States Supreme Court several times, including in the landmark 1971 case, New York Times vs. U.S., over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified report on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
Over and over again, the courts have ruled that the burden of proof for prior restraint is extremely high. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s attempt to stop the presses was rejected because it failed to show that the story would cause a “grave and irreparable danger” to national security.
The case involving the Trentonian doesn’t even approach the level of the Pentagon Papers. It is about an innocent kid caught in the midst of family wrangling that led to school officials finding drugs in his lunchbox. The state has yet to cite any evidence that is weighty enough to justify imposing prior restraint.
The state also argues that Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea obtained the child abuse complaint illegally. However, as Avilucea told northjersey.com, the child’s mother willingly offered it to him. Afterwards, when Avilucea was approached by state officials, he refused to hand it over.
There is no question that this story is messy and needs to be handled with sensitivity. As Avilucea reported in The Trentonian, the child’s father and his girlfriend were each charged with child endangerment, and the child’s grandmother has accused the boy’s mother of “possibly having a role in planting the drugs in the folder in a set up to regain full custody.”
The sensitivity of the topic is not a reason stop the presses and prevent Avilucea from using material from a report that he obtained legally to tell a story that raises legitimate issues of public concern. This is not just about the criminal aspects of the case, but also about whether there were failures on the part of the state agencies that were supposed to protect the child.
This injunction sets an intolerable precedent that undermines everything we value about a free press. That is why we strongly urge the court to overturn Judge Corson’s order.
As Avilucea correctly argued in his interview with northjersey.com: “I don’t know how we’re supposed to operate in a democracy if media organizations are having to capitulate to the court or the Attorney General’s Office. The discretion of what to publish should be vested in reporters and editors, not in the court.”
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