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An Introduction

The freedom of the press. The right to a fair trial. Both constitutionally guaranteed; both of equal import. When they two conflict, how can courts or others resolve the tension between them?

Pretrial publicity of high-profile criminal cases can bias jurors against the accused, making his or her trial unfair. Yet the First Amendment protects pretrial publicity. The Supreme Court confirmed its presumption of constitutionality in the ’70s, making it extremely difficult, but certainly not impossible, for a judge to issue a gag order of the press. There are other indirect methods of restricting press access to the courtroom that judges can use.

Judges, rather than silencing the media, can impose gag orders on court officials and involved parties if they want to control what goes to the press. If, for example, a lawyer leaks something to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, the judge can subpoena the reporter and demand to know the source of the leak. If the reporter stands by his word and refuses to give up his source, he may be sent to jail or otherwise sanctioned. Grand juries may also compel journalists to testify if they have witnessed the commission of a crime firsthand.

While 49 states have laws or judicial rulings that provide some protection to journalists, there is no federal law or Supreme Court precedent that safeguards the reporter’s right to maintain the confidentiality of his source. Post-publication sanctions on reporters could discourage them from writing about high-profile criminal cases. Some argue that gag orders on court officials have become an indirect way of preventing media coverage of criminal cases.

Apart from arguably indirect press restrictions, challenges to the legitimacy of press coverage of criminal cases are common. Despite 40 years of presumptive constitutionality, defendants still appeal convictions on claims of juror bias due to media coverage.

In 2010, for example, former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling’s appeal based on juror bias made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In September 2012, convicted murderer and kidnapper Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, known under his alias “Clark Rockfeller,” appealed his conviction in a Massachusetts appeals court; his appeal was based upon juror bias due to pretrial publicity. A district attorney challenged Quincy-based group Open Court’s freedom to film proceedings in Quincy District Court this past summer.

Even though pretrial publicity enjoys constitutional protection, it remains an issue today, through both challenges from defendants and indirect restriction of press freedom in gag orders of involved parties. Exposure to pretrial publicity can prejudice jurors. On the other hand, the cost of restricting press freedom could outweigh any benefit to society through protecting the accused.

What, then, is the resolution to this struggle?

That’s the thing I’m aiming to find out over the course of the Spring 2013 semester. It’s the main point of my directed study project under the supervision of Northeastern Assistant Professor of Journalism Dan Kennedy.

For now, let’s say the jury’s out on this one.

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