The Trentonian and Avilucea notch a big press-freedom win

Journalism scored a big victory for the role of an informed public in a democracy this week when the New Jersey Appellate Court rejected the efforts of the NJ Attorney General’s office (AG) to reinstate a gag order against The Trentonian newspaper and reporter Isaac Avilucea.

This is an important case involving drugs brought to school by a 5-year-old child, drugs which appear to have been planted by an adult. At issue was a child-custody report, which the state claimed Avilucea had obtained illegally and wanted suppressed on the grounds that it was protecting the child’s privacy. However, from the beginning, the newspaper never published the child’s name.

The AG lost the case in Superior Court in March, but since then has been filing non-stop motions to keep the trial court judge’s order from going into effect. In this latest ruling, the Appellate Court could have simply checked the box “denied.” Instead, as Avilucea’s attorney Bruce Rosen pointed out, it issued a strongly worded seven-page decision that bolstered the basic principles of press rights by writing, “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” In effect, the court said “you have no case whatsoever – zip, zilch, zero – no matter how we look at it.”

The “prior restraint” ban stood for five months. Avilucea was under tremendous pressure to settle. He stood his ground and, after a fact-finding hearing, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence De Bello issued a ruling in March that found that Avilucea had obtained the report legally.

It has been a challenging time, for all, especially for Avilucea, an NJ-SPJ member. He went into treatment for testicular cancer a few weeks after the prior restraint order was issued. (Avilucea is 28 years old. His GoFundMe page is here).

In this week’s decision, the high court cited numerous cases supporting press freedom, which refreshes those past decisions as the opinion of the Appellate Division in 2017. We hope this means the AG’s office will accept the ruling and stop using taxpayer money on endless appeals.

NJ-SPJ thanks Rosen, The Trentonian’s lawyers Eli Segal and David Bralow, the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee Chair Hagit Limor and the committee, SPJ President Lynn Walsh, SPJ Ethics Chair Andrew Seaman, SPJ Region 1 Director Jane Primerano, NJ Foundation for Open Government’s John Paff. NJ-SPJ members Bob Schapiro and Miriam Ascarelli attended the court proceedings in support of Avilucea.

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