Fla. judge lifts gag order in middle school sexual-assault case

Monday, August 3, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. — A Florida judge has changed his mind about allowing local news outlets to publish details about an alleged sexual assault by four Walker Middle School students against a teammate.

WFLA-Ch.8 obtained the new details from the Hillsborough County clerk’s office when they were inadvertently included in the court file. The television station and the Tampa Tribune published a story on their Web site, tbo.com, on July 30.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that the article was posted for more than an hour before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Battles ordered the report taken down. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys argued that the documents should not have been included in the court file and should not be public.

Battles reversed himself on July 31 after hearing arguments from news-media attorneys and after researching case law. The attorneys argued that the information was fair game because a reporter legally obtained it.

According to the Times, Battles said the issue presented a conflict between the First Amendment free-press rights and the Sixth Amendment fair-trial rights of defendants.

The newspaper quoted Battles reading from the bench: “Inadvertent or not, there was a failure to safeguard these statements and they were released to the press… . It would be unlawful and improper prior restraint to continue the order that was entered yesterday.''

The documents included potentially incriminating statements made by the four middle school students who are charged as adults in the alleged sexual assault of a classmate last spring. Prosecutors say the teens used a broom handle and hockey stick in the attacks.

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