News groups want gag order lifted in cheating case

Thursday, April 25, 2013

ATLANTA  — A newspaper and a television station are asking a judge to lift a gag order that prevents defendants in Atlanta’s school cheating scandal from discussing the case.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard required the defendants to agree to silence in exchange for lower bond.

Such restrictions are typically issued by a judge, but in this case it was arranged by the prosecutor’s office.

The newspaper and WSB-TV have asked a Fulton County judge to lift the restriction. It bars the defendants from commenting, but it doesn’t apply to their attorneys or the prosecutor and his staff.

Howard should not be allowed to interfere with the defendants’ right “to defend themselves in the court of public opinion,” said attorney Tom Clyde, who filed the motion on behalf of the newspaper and television station that are both owned by Cox Media Group.

“A person’s First Amendment rights do not go away when they are accused of a crime,” Clyde told the newspaper. “They have the right to speak themselves, not just through counsel.”

Howard declined to comment.

A Fulton County grand jury last month indicted 35 educators, including the former superintendent, accusing them of involvement in a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers. Prosecutors say the educators were driven at least in part by bonuses for improved student performance.

A grand jury recommended millions of dollars in cash bonds for some defendants, but Howard agreed to lesser amounts as long as the defendants — but not their lawyers — agreed not to talk to reporters.

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