Tennessee paper to ask appeals court to rehear challenge to prior-restraint ruling

Monday, February 8, 1999

A Tennessee newspaper is to ask the full Court of Criminal Appeals today to hear its challenge to a county judge's ruling that bars the paper from publishing certain details related to a murder trial.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel is seeking to print public defenders' sealed fee records in the case of Thomas “Zoo Man” Huskey, who is on trial charged with the 1992 slayings of four women. Huskey has been tried and convicted twice for rapes that occurred near the Knoxville Zoo, hence the nickname.

A three-judge panel of the state appeals court last week dismissed the paper's appeal of a county judge's prior-restraint ruling. The panel said that because neither the paper nor Huskey's defense team provided the records in question, there could be no ruling.

“I was disappointed the court did nothing,” News-Sentinel Editor Harry Moskos said.

“I felt like the appeals court dodged the issue and that they didn't want to decide,” he said. “It was dismissed on a technicality that was easily within their jurisdiction to resolve.”

According to a Jan. 30 article in the News-Sentinel, the paper's attorney, Richard Hollow, said that his office had not been contacted by the appeals court about the records but would have been glad to provide them.

“If [the court] denies [today's petition], I will take it to the Tennessee Supreme Court without question,” Hollow said.

The paper has been battling to print the fee records since last October. Staff writer John North decided to print information — obtained from a source — which contained the spending agenda for Huskey's defense, totaling $200,000. When Huskey's attorneys learned that North had the records, they successfully obtained an order from Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner to prevent the paper from printing the information.

North said he went ahead and ran what he called “the most interesting and intriguing” information first, despite the restraining order by Baumgartner.

“As a journalist, I have to say that the decision to print and what to print has got to be left up to the press,” North said. “We can't give up that right.”

The order the News-Sentinel was seeking to overturn restricted it from printing anything further from the records on the grounds that the information would hinder Huskey's right to a fair trial.

“These were issues of concern to the public, and [members of the public] are entitled to it,” Moskos said.

“There is a trend in the U.S. courts of trying to shield information, but this is not just a media issue. This is an issue involving the American citizens who should have access to what their government is doing.”

The conflict in this case between the First Amendment right to a free press and the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial has attracted attention from the Society of Professional Journalists' Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee chapters, The (Nashville) Tennessean, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal and the Tennessee Press Association, all of which filed a friend-of-the-court brief stating that rights to free press and a fair trial should not be set at odds.