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SPJ Legal Defense Fund helps bring North Carolina public records case to successful conclusion


Mark Bailen, SPJ Legal Counsel, 317-927-8000, communications@spj.org
Ashlynn Neumeyer, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-361-4133, aneumeyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists Legal Defense Fund supported a successful legal effort in Charlotte, North Carolina, that has enabled public access to sealed court records and evidence from a Charlotte Diocese child sex abuse case.

A state court trial judge agreed to unseal the contents of two previously sealed documents from a 2012 lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese regarding alleged sexual abuse by priests. That lawsuit was originally dismissed because of statute of limitations. The judge unsealed the files after WBTV investigative reporter Nick Ochsner, who had been reporting on the lawsuit and writing letters to the Court requesting the information, initiated a lawsuit to force the unsealing.

When it was discovered that certain evidence was sealed and kept from the public without even a publicly available order stating the basis for sealing, SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund provided $2,500 in financial support to pursue the litigation. WBTV, a Gray Communications station, was joined by a coalition of other media groups including Tegna and Cox TV stations and The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper. Charlotte media lawyer Jon Buchan handled the case on behalf of the media coalition.

Last week, the Charlotte Diocese released a list of 14 clergy who have been “credibly accused” of child sex abuse. “Credibly accused,” as the diocese uses the term, means allegations that clergy members admitted to, were charged for by law enforcement, were found believable by the diocese’s Lay Review Board or were uncovered in a recently completed review of personnel files.

“This is just one example of how assistance from the LDF can make a difference, not only in the outcome of a court case, but in bringing to light important information that the public needs to know,” said Hagit Limor, LDF Committee chair and SPJ Foundation vice president.

The previously sealed records involved materials related to discovery disputes and to the Diocese’s motion for summary judgment. Due to the possibility of the sealed evidence being used by the Court to make a final decision, there were strong arguments for disclosure because information upon which the Court relies in deciding a case should be publicly available.

The Society of Professional Journalists collects and distributes contributions for aiding journalists in defending the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. 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.

Learn more about the LDF, including how to request financial assistance and how to contribute to the fund.

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 SPJ Foundation.


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