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SPJ gives $5,000 to pay Trentonian reporter’s legal fees


Lynn Walsh, SPJ National President, 614-579-7937, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists Legal Defense Fund will help pay legal fees of a journalist fighting a judge’s order that prohibits him from reporting on a child abuse story.

Isaac Avilucea, a reporter for The (Trenton, New Jersey) Trentonian, obtained a confidential child custody report from the child’s mother. He was preparing a news article about the matter for The Trentonian when, without giving notice to Avilucea or the newspaper, a New Jersey judge issued an emergency order prohibiting him and the newspaper from publishing information obtained from the complaint. Avilucea and The Trentonian have now fought the prior restraint in court for several months.

Avilucea, who retained his own counsel, submitted a Legal Defense Fund request on Jan. 13. The committee voted to grant his request last week and give him $5,000 toward his legal fees.

“The Legal Defense Fund exists for exactly this type of situation, and SPJ is happy to be able to help journalists who find themselves in court battles, fighting for public access to government records and proceedings, and defending freedom of speech and press,” said SPJ National President Lynn Walsh. “When a journalist or his employer can’t or won’t fund these types of battles, the LDF is there to provide a bit of a safety net. It is one of the most important things SPJ does in its work to improve and protect journalism.”

While judges sometimes issue prior restraints against news media, the orders are usually quickly withdrawn given the presumptively unconstitutional nature of prior restraints. But the order in this case was entered in October 2016 and after two hearings, still has not been reversed or withdrawn. The judge ordered further briefing on the issue, due this Friday.

SPJ spoke out against the judge’s actions in December, arguing that the action constitutes “prior restraint” which has repeatedly been rejected by the United States Supreme Court, 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.

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 Society's Legal Defense Fund is a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Application to the fund is approved by either a small committee or the national board, depending on the level of assistance sought. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF.

For more information, to make an LDF grant request or donate to the fund, click here.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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