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SPJ joins amicus brief in West Virginia coal mine case


Update 3/5/2015: The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of appeals overturned U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger’s sealing and gag orders in this case. Expedited arguments were heard in the case Monday and a short decision was handed down today invalidating the orders. SPJ and the other media organizations who signed the amicus brief requesting this action are thrilled with this outcome.

Feb. 23, 2015

Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief, authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in support of a number of news organizations – the Associated Press, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Charleston Gazette and Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Inc. – who intervened to challenge sealing and gag orders entered by a district court in West Virginia in connection with the criminal trial of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards, and conspiracy to defraud the United States, in connection with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in southern West Virginia. News organizations covering the trial intervened when the district court entered sealing and gag orders. The district court denied the media organizations’ motion, and the organizations filed Wednesday a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit asking the appellate court to hear their issue.

A federal judge is delaying Blankenship’s trial until April 20. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for March 3.

“The gag and sealing orders entered by the district court create unnecessary – not to mention unconstitutional – restrictions on the ability of all reporters and news organizations to keep the public informed about this case,” said SPJ President Dana Neuts. “Many news organizations outside the state of West Virginia and smaller media outlets throughout the state do not have the resources to send reporters to cover this trial in person. Issuing the gag and sealing orders makes it particularly difficult for reporters at these news organizations to share information about this case to their readers, viewers and listeners.”

The First Amendment guarantees the press and the public a right of access to criminal trials, including pretrial proceedings, and documents submitted in connection with them. In its role as a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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