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Florida judge rejects contempt petition against Sun Sentinel, two reporters

July 18, 2019

A Florida judge dismissed a request to hold the South Florida Sun Sentinel and two of its reporters in contempt for publishing the entirety of an improperly redacted report, issuing her ruling on May 13, 2019.

Reporter Brittany Wallman told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that they were relieved at finally having a resolution, but that they were prepared for any outcome. “Of course you have to stand on principle,” Wallman said, “and we were both willing to go to jail to publish the entirety of that report… It was one of those crystal clear moments where you know you’re doing a public service.”

The Sun Sentinel was part of a consortium of newspapers, Wallman said, working in tandem to acquire documents relating to the February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

At a hearing on Aug. 3, 2018, Broward Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Scherer had ordered the Broward school district to release a report produced by a consultant with nearly two-thirds of its content blacked out to protect the privacy rights of the gunman, Nicholas Cruz. The Sun Sentinel reported that it was “a move that also concealed much about how the district mishandled Cruz’s education.”

Wallman told the Tracker that after the redacted report was released by the school district, a reader tipped them off that the document had been improperly censored: Copying and pasting the report into a separate file would reveal the full, uncensored text. Wallman and her fellow reporter, Paula McMahon, published an article detailing the full report that night.

The Broward school district’s chief lawyer, Barbara Myrick, notified Scherer of the publication of the uncensored report on Aug. 6 in a petition to invoke contempt hearings against the Sun Sentinel, as well as Wallman and McMahon individually. If found guilty, they could have faced a fine of up to $500 or up to one year in jail.

The school board alleged that they had intentionally published information that the reporters knew a judge had ordered to be secret, and were therefore guilty of “indirect criminal contempt” regardless of how the information had been obtained.

The Sun Sentinel filed a motion to dismiss on Aug. 10 citing Florida’s anti-SLAPP law, which allows for early dismissal of meritless lawsuits filed with the intention to censor, intimidate or silence people exercising their First Amendment rights.

Wallman told the Tracker, “[The petition] ultimately galvanized support for us… because people were so outraged that they would want to have us punished for reporting the truth.”

Scherer berated the newspaper’s lawyer, Dana McElroy, at a hearing in mid-August and said that in the future she would consider listing precisely what the newspaper can and cannot publish, the Sun Sentinel reported.

“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print—and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie… then I’ll do that,” she said, according to the Sun Sentinel.

The petition was left without a ruling until May 2019, when Scherer declined to invoke contempt proceedings without detailing the reasons behind her decision or the nearly nine-month gap in reaching a ruling.

This article has been updated to reflect more precise contempt sentencing maximums.

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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