By: M.L. Stein
California judge stuns media by ordering 18 news
organizations to preserve all published and unpublished
materials gathered in covering a high-profile kidnap case sp.
IN A RULING that stunned attorneys and the media, a Stockton, Calif., judge ordered 18 news agencies to “preserve” all published and unpublished materials they have gathered in covering a high-profile kidnap case.
In announcing a swift challenge to the order, Debra Bruns, in-house counsel for McClatchy Newspapers, declared that, “The court has no jurisdiction over the news media.”
She also asserted that, “We were given no notice or opportunity to be heard on the order. I’ve never heard of anything like this and I can’t find any other attorney who has.”
Attorney Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, termed the order by San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Connie Callahan “contrary to the Constitution and the California shield Law, plus the fact that the court has no jurisdiction over the news media.”
Callahan issued the order at the recent arraignment of Steven Reese Cochran on a 21-count complaint charging kidnapping, armed robbery, burglary, false imprisonment, car theft, child abuse and other offenses in connection with the kidnapping of a 12-year-old girl from her home. She was later found safe but naked in a cow pasture.
The judge acceded to a request by Cochran’s lawyer, David Adams, who asked that all published and unpublished materials relating to the abduction be preserved on the grounds that “these forms of unpublished information may contain statements or visual depictions which are relevant to the potential issues here-in.”
County prosecutor Bill Murray joined in the motion for the purpose, he said, of staving off a possible defense move for a change of venue in the trial.
Bruns and other media lawyers demanded and got a hearing on Callahan’s order. Meanwhile, Bruns said, McClatchy papers will do nothing to violate the judge’s order.
“We’ll simply do what we normally do ? save our notes and tapes,” she continued.
“We intend to fight this,” said Bee managing editor Rick Rodriguez. He added that he had talked to other editors who said their papers also intended to challenge the ruling.
Francke predicted the order will be vacated.
“The press has done nothing to become a party to this kidnapping case,” he explained. “The court normally speaks to people who, if they are not parties to a case, they are in some way agents in a set of circumstances that relate to it. When a court says to a news organization, don’t publish something or hand it over or save it, it is literally abridging freedom of the press.”
Jonathan Keller, a University of Southern California journalism professor and legal counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Bee: “This is not the kind of order that will withstand appellate scrutiny.”
CNPA attorney Renee Allison said the order “directly interferes with the ability of reporters to gather the news, an ability which is protected by the First Amendment. As soon as courts get involved in how reporters gather the news, that’s when our First Amendment rights become seriously jeopardized, and not just for the news media, but for the public at large.”
Callahan’s blanket order covered pictures, written notes, and audio and video recordings of the rescue of the victim, Katie Romanek, and of jailhouse interviews with Cochran and the child’s family.