Late last week a judge in Trenton made an important ruling, upholding the free speech rights of parents and journalists. At this moment, however, that ruling is under assault from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. Very soon a gag order could be re-imposed.
- Should a parent be barred from sharing a report, from a taxpayer-funded agency, with a journalist? If parents have enough money, they can hire a lawyer and seek justice. Yes, there are laws on this, but they are enforced with wide discretion. It does not need to become a “David vs. Goliath” legal battle.
- At the heart of this is the privacy of a 5-year-old child. That child brought serious drugs to school on two occasions. It appears that the drugs were planted by adults, as part of a custody battle. Certainly, parents in Trenton have an interest in being informed on what’s happening in their schools, but that must be weighed against the child’s right to privacy. In this instance, neither The Trentonian nor Mr. Avilucea revealed the child’s name. It was the state which shined a light on the child’s identity in open court, through the witnesses it sought in its non-stop pursuit of prior restraint. The state’s claim that it was protecting the child’s identity seemed hollow before the judge’s ruling; pursuing it now is, in our opinion, reckless.
- Prior restraint is when the government tries to censor reporters for something they might publish. That happens a lot in Russia and China, but it is virtually unheard-of in the United States, even in cases involving national security. It was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, in which Justice Hugo Black declared, “. . . every moment’s continuance of the (prior restraint) injunctions . . . amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment.” Such a violation existed in New Jersey from October through the end of March. The state is seeking to re-impose it.
There are multiple ironies here. In New Jersey, an informed public turned against the state’s child welfare agency after the death of a 2-year-old Ocean County toddler, one of many troubling cases over several decades. It got so bad that the agency had to change its name. Yet it would be wrong to frame this as “the rights of the press vs. the government.” Journalists also reported that state child welfare workers were short-staffed and under-funded. “The government” is not an abstract entity, it is people. Taxpayers are people. Journalists are people.