Press Group Fights Gag Order in Charleston Shooting Case

Citing the public's right to know, the South Carolina Press Association has joined local media outlets in fighting a court order that sealed documents in the trial of Dylann Roof, the suspect in the mass shooting at a Charleston church.

One of the most high-profile court cases in South Carolina in recent years is currently under a gag order—and a leading media organization in the state wants that to change.

The South Carolina Press Association, along with media outlets WCIV-TV, the Charleston Post and Courier, and the Associated Press, is opposing the order issued last week by Judge J.C. Nicholson. Nicholson barred the release of 911 recordings, police and radio communications, and other public records related to the case, saying pretrial publicity could jeopardize alleged gunman Dylann Roof’s right to a fair trial.

SCPA and the media outlets filed a motion asking the court to lift the order. “The public has a need and a right to know about this case, and the judge’s order is overly broad,” SCPA Executive Director Bill Rogers told Reuters, noting that it prohibits anyone “potentially involved in the trial” from speaking about the case.

Jay Bender, a lawyer representing the association and the Post and Courier, said legal precedent in the state holds that “the means to guarantee a right to fair trial is through extensive questioning of prospective jurors.”

But in a court hearing Thursday, Nicholson extended the gag order and reframed his reasoning, saying the order was needed to protect the dignity of the victims, as guaranteed by the state constitution. Nicholson said his primary concern was the potential release of disturbing images and recordings related to the case.

“Number one, any graphic pictures of the victims dead on the floor of the church… Second, if there is a 911 tape that was recorded during the shooting, and there are some sounds from the victims on that tape, those two issues are the concern and those are the only two issues,” Nicholson said at the hearing, according to WCBD-TV.

He pledged to lift the order on Wednesday if no one files a motion asking that it be continued.

In an editorial, the Post and Courier said it had no interest in publishing graphic images from the crime scene. “However, we believe the public has the right and responsibility to inspect the 911 calls to determine if the agencies involved responded appropriately and promptly,” Executive Editor Mitch Pugh said in the op-ed piece. “Traditionally, the media have played a key role in helping the public perform this vital oversight.”

“It is troubling to think Judge Nicholson might allow petitions for extending the gag order to supersede the public’s right to know,” the editorial said.

Dylann Storm Roof appears by closed-circuit television at his bond hearing in Charleston, South Carolina June 19, 2015. (Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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