Reporter Zachary Siegel held in contempt of court and arrested after recording trial
Freelance journalist Zachary Siegel was held in criminal contempt of court and arrested on October 2, 2018, while covering a high-profile murder trial in Chicago, Illinois. The judge overseeing the trial said that Siegel had recorded part of the trial, in violation of the judge’s decorum order, and ordered him held in jail on a $100 bond.
On October 2, Siegel was one of a number of journalists in attendance for the murder trial of Jason Van Dyke, a former Chicago police officer charged with murder in connection with the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager. Siegel, a freelance science journalist, was on assignment for Undark, an online magazine about science journalism funded through the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Siegel was working on a feature story about Laurence Miller, a police psychologist who often testifies as an expert witness for the defense in trials involving police use of force.
Shortly after Miller’s testimony began, judge Vincent Gaughan spotted Siegel recording the testimony and stopped the trial. After questioning Siegel, judge Gaughan ordered that he be held in “direct criminal contempt” for violating the judge’s earlier decorum order. Gaughan’s decorum order allowed a defined media pool to record the trial proceedings and then share the footage with other journalists, but prohibited individual journalists (like Siegel) from recording parts of the trial on their own. Siegel was removed from court and taken to jail.
Video recorded by ABC 7 (which was allowed to film the proceedings) shows Gaughan questioning Siegel.
“Take your hands out of your pocket,” Gaughan scolds Siegel. “All right, state your name. Get up here!”
Gaughan asks Siegel if he was recording testimony (Siegel says he was) and if he knew that recording testimony was a violation of the decorum order (Siegel says he did not).
Gaughan then orders that the person sitting next to Siegel be brought up to the front of the court.
“Before I ask him whether he was sitting next to you when the decorum order was read, I want you to think about your answer, all right?” Gaughan tells Siegel. “Did you see and hear my deputy read my decorum order in this courtroom?”
“Yes,” Siegel says.
“All right, take him into custody,” Gaughan says. “I find you in direct contempt of court.”
Later, Siegel was brought back before judge Gaughan for a brief hearing on the criminal contempt charge.
Gaughan told Siegel to appear at a sentencing hearing on October 31 and ordered him held on a $1,000 D-bond. A D-bond requires that a defendant raise 10% of its amount (in this case, $100) in order to make bail.
Zachary Siegel, the reporter who was held in contempt after recording earlier today, is being held on $1,000 bond.— Matt Masterson (@ByMattMasterson) October 2, 2018
"I don't want you to stay over there long," Gaughan said, adding "it's bad that you did that."
Zachary Siegel, a freelancer, is in front of Judge Gaughan on his contempt of court charge. He's got a $1000 D-bond, so he'll have to post $100 to get out. We took up a collection in the press aisle.— Andy Grimm (@agrimm34) October 2, 2018
Siegel was released from jail after other journalists covering the trial took up a collection to raise $100 for his bail.
I was arrested and charged with contempt of court for recording when I wasn't supposed to. I want to thank all the journalists who put up $ for my bond, keeping me out of jail. (If you did put up $, please DM so I can venmo you). I also want to thank @undarkmag for standing w/ me— Zachary Siegel (@ZachWritesStuff) October 2, 2018
Tom Zeller, Jr., the editor in chief of Undark magazine, told Freedom of the Press Foundation that the judge’s decision to hold Siegel in contempt of court was inappropriate.
“Whatever the overall nature or purpose of the judge’s ‘decorum order,’ the decision to arrest a reporter for recording testimony during a highly publicized trial — and one in which other members of the press were permitted to record freely — would seem both absurd and arbitrary on its face,” he said. “If the judge’s goal was to intimidate other working journalists, it will not work.”
On October 30, Siegel’s attorney filed a motion to reconsider the criminal contempt order, arguing that Siegel just misinterpreted the judge’s courtroom decorum order:
Mr. Siegel attended a small portion of the trial on a daily media credential for the purposes of writing a freelance story on Mr. Van Dyke's expert for a science-based publication, and Mr. Siegel recorded testimony solely to use it personally to assist him in drafting his story. He had never covered a trial or court proceeding before. He was unfamiliar with the media pool practices for coverage of trials and did not know that pool recordings would be available. And he interpreted Paragraph One of the Courtroom Decorum Order as permitting all credentialed journalists to make audio recordings in the courtroom. As a result, he openly used the device and admitted to doing so when questioned by the Court, and explained that he did not know his actions violated any orders of the Court.
While Mr. Siegel recognizes that it would have been more prudent to discuss his intention to record with the media coordinators to ensure he was interpreting the Order as the Court intended it, his mistake was made in good faith and does not rise to the level of contemptuous conduct.
Zachary Siegel's motion to reconsider contempt order
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for December 14, 2018.
On December 14, Siegel’s motion to reconsider was denied, and he was sentenced to three months of “non-reported supervision” for contempt.
Siegel clarified to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that under
“non-reported supervision,” he is not required to check in with an
official, and is permitted to travel and leave the state.
He said that the judge was adamant that Siegel was attempting to “get a scoop” through his possession of audio of testimony in court, which Siegel disputes, given the long-term nature of his reporting on the case.
“I still think this whole ordeal was blown out of proportion,” Siegel said. “If a deputy merely told me to turn off my recorder, which was in plain sight, I would’ve done it. None of this needed to happen.”