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SPJ joins amicus brief in Texas biker shootout case


Sept. 15, 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 with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and 23 other journalism and media organizations in the State of Texas ex rel. Abelino Reyna.

The amicus brief was filed in the criminal prosecution of a Texas man named Matthew Clendennen, who was one of the many motorcyclists arrested in May after a deadly shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco. The judge handling Clendennen’s trial issued a broad gag order that barred anyone involved in his criminal case from discussing it with the media. The order is so broad that it prevents witnesses or law enforcement officials from making statements to the media that are already part of the public record. The judge claimed he was trying to prevent pre-trial publicity, but he made no specific findings suggesting that such an expansive order is necessary to preserve a fair trial.

Clendennen challenged the gag order, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is now deciding whether to vacate the order or leave it intact. The decision will likely establish the legal standard that will apply to all gag orders in criminal cases under Texas law.

“The impact of this gag order extends beyond this case. As members of the media, we have a strong interest in preserving the ability to gather news and report on ongoing criminal proceedings and ensuring that any prior restraint on speech imposed by a court meets constitutional requirements,” said SPJ National President Dana Neuts. “Gag orders such as this one restrict the flow of accurate, newsworthy information about matters of immense public interest.”

The groups also argue that only in the most extreme cases will pretrial publicity threaten a criminal defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial before an impartial jury. The Texas court has consistently held that extensive news coverage is not inherently prejudicial to a defendant’s fair trial rights. Federal courts agree that even widespread, adverse publicity does not violate the fair trial rights of criminal defendants.

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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