NAPOLEON, OH- The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio urged the state’s Supreme Court to quickly reverse Henry County Common Pleas Court Judge Keith P. Muehlfeld’s order to prevent members of the media from reporting on a public trial in his courtroom set to begin Monday, February 1, 2010. On Wednesday, the Toledo Blade asked the Ohio Supreme Court to block Judge Muehlfeld’s gag order.
“One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the role of the media to inform the public about the actions of our government and act as a watchdog against injustice. Transparency is perhaps most important in the courtroom, where defendants are judged on behalf of the people,” said ACLU of Ohio Staff Counsel Carrie Davis. “If the media loses its unfettered ability to report on events in the court, there may be a greater chance of failures in the justice system.”
Judge Muehlfeld is presiding over the cases of Jayme Schwenkmeyer and David Knepley, who are both facing criminal charges in relation to the death of Ms. Schwenkmeyer’s infant daughter. The trials are scheduled to be held a week apart. Attorneys for Mr. Knepley, who will be tried second, requested Judge Muehlfeld impose the gag order because of concerns media reports of Ms. Schwenkmeyer’s trial could taint potential jury members.
“Every defendant should have a fair trial, but that should not negate the people’s right to know and the ability of the media to report on a public trial,” added Davis. “There are many other solutions outside of a gag order that would protect both the First Amendment and the right to a fair trial.”
Among the alternatives other courts have implemented include: screening potential jurors by a jury selection process, asking the jury to avoid media coverage, instructing the jury to only consider what is presented during the trial, or move the trial to a neighboring county.
Earlier this week, Judge Muehlfeld denied a request from the Toledo Blade asking him to remove the gag order. In its motion to the Ohio Supreme Court, the Blade asked the justices for an expedited ruling before the criminal trial is set to begin next week.
“The Ohio Supreme Court must strongly reaffirm that courts may not interfere with the press’ ability to report on their proceedings,” concluded Davis. “If this ruling was to go unchallenged, it leaves the door open for judges across the state to impose draconian gag orders for any number of reasons.”
The Ohio Supreme Court granted the Toledo Blade’s request to remove the gag order permanently and allow media coverage of the criminal trials. Judge Muehlfeld is expected to resume the trials soon.
The Ohio Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction against Judge Muehlfeld’s gag order. The criminal case in Henry County has been postponed until the state Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the gag order.