Ohio high court sides with newspaper, strikes down gag order

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's Supreme Court has ruled that a county judge can't bar the news media from reporting on a trial.

The court ruled unanimously yesterday that an order by a northwest Ohio judge was “patently unconstitutional.”

Judge Keith Muehlfeld of Henry County Common Pleas Court in Napoleon wanted to prevent reporting on the trial of Jayme Schwenkmeyer, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the drug overdose death of her 13-month-old daughter, Kamryn Gerken.

Muehlfeld said didn't want the public to read or hear about Schwenkmeyer's case before the court could seat an impartial jury for the Feb. 1 trial of her former boyfriend, David Knepley, on the same charges.

The judge said he was worried that coverage of the first trial could make it difficult to find impartial jurors for the second trial.

The Blade of Toledo filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court to challenge the gag order.

The newspaper reported that both trials were placed on hold while the state high court considered the issue.

The Ohio Supreme Court said Muehlfeld had a duty to try to balance the competing First and Sixth Amendment claims.

“Judge Muehlfeld’s analysis proceeded from the erroneous premise that a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial should be accorded priority over the media’s constitutional rights of free speech and press,” the high court wrote in State ex rel. Toledo Blade Co. v. Henry Cty. Court of Common Pleas.

The high court also criticized Muehlfeld for failing to hold a hearing before he issued the order.

Muehlfeld’s office said he had no comment on the ruling.