U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

No gag rule exception for the media in North Carolina

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Published On
October 31, 2023
Students sit on library steps at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. As part of a 2023 lawsuit against UNC, a judge issued a new restraining order barring media from publishing information about a former student or his expulsion.

Students sit on library steps at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. As part of a 2023 lawsuit against UNC, a judge issued a second restraining order this month barring publishing of information about a former student, his expulsion.

— REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

Welcome back to your newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter directly in your inbox by signing up here.

A North Carolina court issued a restraining order this month barring anyone — media not excepted — from publishing on a former student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about his expulsion.

Alarming on its own, this is actually the second temporary restraining order granted in a lawsuit alleging wrongful expulsion by the former student against the UNC System and multiple university administrators.

The former student, filing under the pseudonym Jacob Doe, first requested a bar on publishing when the lawsuit was filed in February.

The same court — but a different judge — granted that gag on Feb. 22. Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), which operates the Tracker, joined the ACLU of North Carolina and a UCLA First Amendment law professor in an opposition brief to the order and its sealing. It was dissolved on March 1.

But when a public records request seeking his identity prompted Doe to request another restraining order this month, a second judge granted it, noting it would stay in place until the original judge in the case returned from an absence. On Oct. 25, the gag order was renewed for another 14 days, and that’s where it stands today.

Gag orders on the press, 2017-now

As FPF’s Advocacy Director Seth Stern wrote, there is some ambiguity to the order, in that it doesn’t specifically name the press. “But even if the court did mean to exclude the press from the order, and inadvertently failed to say so, the effect is the same: a constitutionally intolerable chilling effect on journalists’ ability to report news without fear of punishment,” he added.

These are among the seven gag orders issued this year; three are still pending, including this one in North Carolina.

Journalists covering domestic reactions to the Israel-Hamas war

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a co-founding partner of the Tracker, more than 30 journalists have been killed this month in the Israel-Hamas war. In the U.S., the Tracker has been closely following domestic events as journalists cover demonstrations related to the conflict. To date, we’ve documented two press freedom aggressions.

Freelance journalist Talia Ben-Ora told the Tracker she was assaulted on Oct. 8 while documenting the second of two rallies in New York City. After filming and publishing excerpts from a pro-Palestinian rally, she said she headed to a rally in support of Israel. There, she said, she was harassed by some who claimed that her coverage of the earlier demonstration was a show of her support for Hamas, the militant group. Ben-Ora called the assertions “heinous slander,” and a deliberate attempt to provoke the crowd to violence. She was tripped, had her press pass briefly stolen and was escorted away from the rally by New York Police Department officers.

On Oct. 20, freelance photojournalist Eric Marks was detained for 30 minutes and cited with jaywalking while covering a gathering in support of Palestine in Reno, Nevada.