U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Judge orders LA Times not to publish descriptions of defendant in murder trial

Incident Details

Date of Incident
October 10, 2018

Prior Restraint

Status of Prior Restraint
Mistakenly Released Materials?
LATimes_prior restraint_101018
October 10, 2018

On Oct. 10, 2018, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gustavo N. Sztraicher ordered The Los Angeles Times not to publish “descriptors” of a defendant charged with murder — even though journalists watched his proceedings in an open courtroom.

According to The Times, an attorney for Dejone Wright, the defendant charged with the July shooting of anti-gang activist Garry Dorton, objected during a pre-trial hearing to a media request issued by The Times to photograph or describe his client to the public. Wright’s attorney argued that any information about his client’s appearance, if published, “would affect the outcome of a jury trial."

Court documents state Sztraicher agreed with the lawyer’s request and ordered “no descriptors” of Wright be published, citing an “identification issue.”

A sworn declaration by Times reporter Cindy Chang, who was present for the hearing, states no further elaboration of the order was given and that the order was not mentioned in the hearing’s official minutes.

“My understanding is that the Court has prohibited me from publishing any information that visually describes Mr. Wright or Mr. Dixon that I obtained from observing them in open court,” Chang wrote. “However, given the brief exchange in court on Oct. 10 and the lack of any reference to it in the Minute Order, I am uncertain and confused about what the ruling requires.”

On Oct. 12, Dan Laidman, an attorney for The Times, challenged the order, requesting clarification and that the order be vacated as an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.

“The Times respectfully requests that this Court clarify the scope of the Order, particularly whether it restricts the publication of any information,” Laidman wrote. “If the Order prohibits The Times from publishing information about Defendants that is obtained through a journalist’s observations in open court (or any lawful source), then it is an unconstitutional prior restraint.”

Laidman also challenged the order on the grounds it was unconstitutionally vague.

“Without further clarification from this Court, the media will be required to steer wide of describing Defendants, who were lawfully observed in open court, and the Oct. 10 Order therefore imposes an unconstitutionally vague prior restraint,” he argued.

Laidman went on to note that Wright’s name and birthdate were released by the Los Angeles Police Department on Oct. 3, and no California court has ever upheld a prior restraint “on publication of lawfully obtained information about criminal court proceedings.”

Sztraicher reversed his ruling on Oct. 12 after acknowledging even he did not fully comprehend the scope of order, according to The Times.

“Any observations made by a reporter who is lawfully in court… may be reported and disseminated,” Sztraicher said in his reversal.

In September, Sztraicher also prohibited reporters from The Times and other outlets from publishing information in a criminal court proceeding over an “identification issue.” That ruling was also reversed.

On Oct. 16 The Times Editorial Board responded to the ruling and its reversal:

It is a settled principle of 1st Amendment law that judges can't bar journalists (or anyone else) from reporting what they see and hear in open court. So it's astounding that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Wednesday ordered The Times not to publish information as basic as the physical description of a criminal defendant who was appearing in his courtroom.

A few weeks earlier, the same judge granted permission to photograph another defendant — but then tried to block The Times from publishing the photos. Both gag orders were impermissible and deeply disturbing prior restraints on speech.

Judge Gustavo N. Sztraicher reversed himself in both cases after The Times objected, so one might be tempted to conclude, "No harm, no foul."

But there is indeed serious harm every time a judge disregards or misunderstands the 1st Amendment and the strict limitation it places on the government’s power to prevent a person or news outlet from repeating or reporting what goes on in open court.

Editorial: Note to Judge Sztraicher: ‘Open court’ means open for journalists to report freely

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Times reporter Cindy Chang's name.

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