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Letter to 5th District Judge James Shumate regarding KUTV Reporter Katie Baker
Honorable James L. Shumate
Utah Fifth District Court
220 North 200 East
St. George, UT 84770
Dear Judge Shumate:
The Society of Professional Journalists writes to urge you to reconsider and vacate a contempt of court ruling against KUTV Reporter Katie Baker. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest journalism advocacy organization.
We believe that Ms. Baker should not be held in contempt of court for violating the decorum order. Ms. Baker had no knowledge of the court provision in question when she conducted the interview with the potential juror in the Warren Jeffs case. Further, there is no evidence that Ms. Baker was willfully or intentionally disobeying the Court’s order. Rather, she had no knowledge of the order at the time the interview was conducted.
The Court’s contempt order creates a worrisome precedent for other news reporters covering Utah courts. The precedent could make all reporters subject to contempt violations for unknowingly failing to comply with the provisions of court decorum orders.
Furthermore, we believe it is unconstitutional to punish Ms. Baker by ordering her to create a public service story. As noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams stated in an Associated Press story regarding the Court's ruling: “The notion that a judge can either compel a journalist to write a story or sit in judgment on a story to determine if it sufficiently serves the public interest is extremely disturbing.”
While the Court apparently did not order the story to be broadcast, this does not erase the First Amendment concerns. Ms. Baker is required, under penalty of contempt, to use her time and skill to produce a story. In addition, KUTV’s resources, including the time of a photographer and producer, must be placed in the service of the court to satisfy this order. The First Amendment protects against compelled speech and government interference in the editorial process.
Ms. Baker made a mistake and should not be “punished” for unintentionally violating the Court’s order. After being notified of her error, she immediately apologized and accepted responsibility for it. We appreciate your attention to this matter.
Clint Brewer, SPJ National President
David Cuillier, National FOI Chairman