Ind. drops effort to block newspaper story

Monday, March 12, 2012

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A Northern Indiana newspaper was briefly forced to remove a story from its website after a last-minute reversal from an appeals court blocked the paper from using transcripts of calls to the Department of Child Services. But later DCS dropped its attempt to suppress the story on a recommendation from state Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

Zoeller said such prior restraint of a news outlet’s publishing public records was inconsistent with the First Amendment.

The South Bend Tribune had originally won the release of phone records from the DCS child-abuse hotline after the November death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis. The records included audio recordings and transcripts related to the child, who was found tortured and dead.

A state appeals court granted an emergency block on the records on March 9, an hour after the newspaper published a story on its website with details from the calls. The Tribune removed the story from its website until word came that the blocking effort was off.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for 2 p.m. today in Indianapolis.

“I am saddened by today’s ruling that delays us from telling this important story,” said Kim Wilson, The Tribune‘s president and publisher, earlier. “We will continue to fight to provide additional insight and information that might help our community to prevent future tragedies such as the untimely death of Tramelle Sturgis last year.”

The Tribune began a series of stories examining DCS issues in February, including fatalities such as the beating death of Sturgis.

Two weeks after Sturgis died, The Tribune filed a public records request to DCS, requesting access to all department reports related to the boy and his family. DCS records are typically confidential, but state law allows a release of documents in cases where a child fatality or near-fatality has occurred.

The Tribune subsequently received 21 pages of reports showing previous DCS involvement with the family. But DCS omitted the phone records.

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said it was “very rare” for a court to grant such an order after the story has already been published.

“Anytime the government steps in to prevent newspapers from publishing information that they legitimately obtained, it raises huge First Amendment issues,” Key said.

He said DCS’s attempt to keep The Tribune from publishing stories on records it already has in its possession is like “trying to put the genie back in the bottle after you’ve let it loose.”

Tribune attorney Gerald Lutkus said the U.S. Supreme Court had consistently struck down efforts to restrain the news media from publishing information, whether temporarily or permanently.

“The stay requested by DCS is patently unconstitutional in that it is a classic prior restraint on the press,” Lutkus wrote in a motion he filed on March 9 objecting to the emergency stay.

However, DCS attorneys said releasing the records could promote a “chilling effect” to people who report abuse through the hotline and are promised confidentiality.

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