Academic journal article Journalism History

Nebraska Suppressed

Academic journal article Journalism History

Nebraska Suppressed

Article excerpt

How Gagging the News Media Intensified Pretrial Press Coverage of the Simants' Murder Case

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart began with the issuance of a court order that prohibited the publication of testimony and evidence presented at apreliminary heanng of a suspected mass murderer. With this judicial action, a press-bar contest ensued that hamstrung the media's reporting capabilities as it struggled for seventy-nine days under four gag to cover one of the most brutal murders in Nebraska history. Throughout the controversy, the Nebraska press chose to comply with the restrictive orders; and this article examines the effects of that choice. Specifically, it explores how the Nebraska press functioned under the various restrictive order, how closely the print coverage adhered to the restrictive orders, and how effectively the orders controlled the release of information deemed prejudicial by the judiciary.

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart1 has been hailed as one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most important decisions in the ree press/fair trial conflict. In the case, the Court was called upon to resolve whether courts have the power to prohibit the press from publishing information allegedly prejudicial to a criminal defendant.2 On June 30, 1976, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the use of judicial restrictive orders on the reporting of a murder investigation and its subsequent legal proceedings was an unconstitutional restraint on the freedom of the press. Although the Court did not adopt an unqualified rule against prior restraints as a means of protecting defendants from potential prejudicial publicity, the standard imposed in Nebraska Press has been virtually impossible to meet. Since Nebraska Press, restrictive orders against the media in a criminal proceeding rarely have stood upon appeal even though trial courts occasionally have issued such orders3 in a search for that "exceptional case where a prior restraint would be justified."4

The Nebraska Press case began on Tuesday evening, October 21, 1975, when members of the local news media in and around North Platte, Nebraska, were called to a "meeting" set up by County Judge Ronald Ruff.5 It turned out to be an open-court session to hear motions on ordering restrictions on press coverage in the ensuing Erwin Charles Simants murder case and on closing Simants' preliminary hearing, which was scheduled for the following day, to the public and the press.6 No evidence was presented at the court session. Instead Judge Ruff relied on statements by counsel and his knowledge of the shooting deaths of six members of the Henery Kellie family and alleged sexual assaults, as well as the nature and extent of pretrial publicity in and around the small rural community of Sutherland, Nebraska, where the crime occurred.7 The session resulted in the issuance of an open-ended order of the county court that allowed news reporters to attend the preliminary hearing but prohibited the publication of testimony and evidence obtained there. The press declared the unprecedented gag order "repugnant" and filed a motion calling Judge Ruff's order a violation of the U.S. and Nebraska constitutions.8

With these actions, a press-bar contest began that would hamstring the reporting capabilities of the state's news media as they straggled for seventy-nine days under four gag orders to cover one of the most brutal murders in Nebraska history. The conflict ended with a Supreme Court decision that contained differing opinions regarding the nature of the initial news accounts of the Kellie family murders and whether that coverage constituted a legitimate concern that unrestrained publicity would impair Simants' right to a fair trial. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger characterized the initial coverage as "widespread,"9 noting the trial judge "was justified in concluding that there would be intense and pervasive pretrial publicity" that "might impair the defendant's right to a fair trial. …

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