It has been in just about every issue of the Skiff during the past week and has been covered several times in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The amount of coverage of the sexual assault case on campus has been a little overwhelming, and I’m surprised when I see something new in the paper every day. But this very thorough reporting is no reason to restrict the press if it feels the story is important.The recent gag order, as discussed in the Oct. 27 Star-Telegram and Skiff, was issued by District Judge Wayne Salvant at the request of attorney Gwinda Burns. It bans the media from reporting any pretrial details, photographing any jurors or potential jurors and restricts any court participants from commenting about the trial.
Other arguments aside, this restriction is simply illegal.
Prior restraint is allowed only in the most crucial cases and then only by having narrowly tailored restrictions agreed upon by a higher court. The restrictions of this gag order only offer very general and broad restrictions – possibly due to laziness on the part of those who initiated it. Not only does it prevent the press from reporting anything concerning pretrial proceedings, but it also limits them outside the courtroom – the media can’t take pictures of any jurors or potential jurors, wherever they may be. While I don’t think any photographers planned on running out and attacking any of the jurors, this does put members of the media on dangerous terrain – it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Yet my biggest question in all this controversy is simple: Why?
Burns stated in Friday’s Skiff that “extensive media coverage” was the reason for the gag order. Not excessive or unnecessary, but simply extensive, which is usually what the media strive for when covering stories.
And while a sexual assault is certainly a big issue for TCU, this is hardly a Kobe Bryant or O.J. Simpson case that the tabloids use for fodder because of the big names. Gag orders are allowed to ensure a fair trial of the accused when the media is in a feeding frenzy over a controversial case. I understand these are college athletes, but we’re not talking about Vince Young. These guys are not going to have paparazzi stalking them in their homes, so why bother?
This coverage also does not in any way hinder the trial proceedings. So it’s been in the Star-Telegram a few times – big deal. It’s been buried in the metro section for the past couple of stories because it’s not big enough for the front page. What these stories cover is factual and straightforward and presents no bias that would sway a potential juror’s opinion – if they even happen to see the reports.
In fact, I’ve largely given up on reading these stories because they’ve covered such nominal issues, such as who now has an attorney or who posted bail. The Skiff reports on it because it affects students on campus, and we as students have every right to be informed of the proceedings.
Now, instead of these stories gradually becoming less frequent, the story is big news again because of the gag order. If Burns was trying to hinder publicity with the order, she just created a lot more on her own. Newspapers now have more of a reason than ever to make sure this story stays on the front page.
Without the restraints, the press probably would have run a few more stories when pretrial hearings came around and perhaps a few more after a verdict. But the media would recognize this story isn’t worth column space every day and would probably phase the story out very soon. Thanks to the gag order, however, it’s become personal.
It would be in the court’s best interest to yield to the Star-Telegram’s request to reconsider, or at least to do away with some of the restrictions. If not, this gag order has all the makings of a court case in itself, and that’s a route I think most parties involved – including those being accused – would want to avoid.
Valerie Cooper is a sophomore news-editorial journalism major from Azle. Her column appears every Wednesday.