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Suppressing the Rights of Parents and Criminalizing Journalism

A Statement from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists

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.

We don’t use the word “assault” lightly. Since the judge’s ruling, the Attorney General’s office has made non-stop appeals to the trial judge, the Appellate Division and the New Jersey Supreme Court. They’ve been shut down each time. For most of us, after three strikes, you’re out. But the Attorney General’s office has unlimited resources, if the governor wants it to, and it is wasting taxpayer money by repeatedly appealing the ruling.
It is a complex case, but it boils down to this: A parent disagreed with findings in a state report about their child and family. The parent lacked the money to hire a lawyer, but sought to get The Trentonian newspaper to cover the matter in court. The Trentonian sent reporter Isaac Avilucea to the courthouse, where the parent gave him documents related to the case, documents which the state then claimed were illegally obtained.
The state then sought an extraordinary prior restraint order against the newspaper and threatened Avilucea with criminal charges. Avilucea stood firm and the state backed-down on the criminal threat, but a prior-restraint order was in effect from late October until late March. After a lengthy series of hearings, a Mercer County judge ruled that that Avilucea obtained the report legally and lifted the injunctions against him and The Trentonian. That should have ended things but the state now seems obsessed with spending tax money to suppress free speech in this case.
We wonder what the state is trying to hide. At this point, the state itself has made the child’s identify clear to anyone who looks at the matter. Why is the state so fearful of further reporting?
The New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists (NJ-SPJ) is very much an interested party in this case, having sought and obtained money from our national organization to help fund Mr. Avilucea’s defense.
He is a member of our organization and the recipient of our signature “Courage Under Fire” award. Since the events in the courthouse last October, he has been diagnosed with testicular cancer and he is about to enter a fifth round of chemo-therapy. Continued actions against him seem pointless and even cruel. At this point he is entering a clinical trial to which his doctor has referred him. Isaac observed his 28th birthday last week.
As sobering as this situation is, there are equally serious legal and moral issues at stake:
  • Should a parent be barred from sharing a report, from a taxpayer-funded agency, with a journalist?
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