A Greensboro judge seized a reporter's notes and issued a gag order. The paper hasn't appealed
News outlets have historically relied on the courts to uphold press freedoms, but some First Amendment and legal experts say that wasn’t the case in a Greensboro courtroom in July, when a judge seized the notebook of a Greensboro News & Record reporter and placed her under a gag order.
Nick de La Canal: Can you fill us in on how we got here? What happened that day in court that led to this judge seizing a reporter’s notebook?
Michael Hewlett: So, the reporter, Kenwyn Caranna, was working on this story and was observing court proceedings in juvenile abuse and neglect court on July 28. She was allowed in, she was in for most of the day, when the judge closed the courtroom for one specific case, she left. When the judge opened it back up, she came back in.
But sometime late in the afternoon, the judge noticed Kenwyn in the courtroom and at some point, asked her if she was a reporter. When Kenwyn said yes, an unidentified attorney asked her if she had taken notes and the judge asked Kenwyn also if she had taken notes. And when Kenwyn said yes, that's when the judge ordered bailiffs to seize notes out of her notebook, seal them and then issued a gag order prohibiting Kenwyn from discussing anything she observed in court with anyone. And then five days later after that, the judge, Ashley Watlington-Simms, issued a five-page protective order.
De La Canal: And again, there was a part of that day when the proceedings were closed, but the reporter was there when the court was open to the public. You asked some legal experts about the judge’s justifications for this order. What did they say?
Hewlett: Jeffrey Billman, my colleague and I asked some legal experts, principally someone with the Poynter Institute and also the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and they both said that this seems to be an infringement on 1st Amendment rights, particularly prior restraint, which means there is a long-held precedent that judges cannot prevent journalists from publishing information that they legally obtained. Plus, in North Carolina, juvenile courts are presumed open, so there is no reason why Kenwyn Caranna should not have been able to be in that courtroom.
De La Canal: Has the judge responded to any of those points?
Hewlett: The judge wouldn’t comment specifically on this, but she did respond in emails, just in general, justifying her decision, and she would cite things that didn't really hold up. She's cited U.S. Supreme Court cases where the court actually sided with the press, and she cited a rule regarding procedures in district and superior courts. One of them was Rule 15 — (which) doesn't apply to print journalists. It actually applies only to electronic media.
De La Canal: Has the newspaper or the reporter commented or said if they will appeal?
Hewlett: So, in the initial story that ran almost nearly two weeks after the incident, the News & Record reported this. They said that they were going to request a hearing to try and get this protective order overturned. They followed up, a few days later, with another story in which they indicated that they were trying to seek a court order for audio. That story didn't indicate whether they actually had filed a court order, a motion for a court order.
The executive editor, Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, declined to comment. Kenwyn Caranna declined to comment. It doesn't appear the News & Record or Lee Enterprises, the parent company, has filed anything regarding this and it's still unclear whether or not the News & Record or Lee Enterprises is actually fighting this.
De La Canal: You briefly worked at the Greensboro News & Record in the 1990s. The paper has a much smaller staff now and new owners. What do you think this case tells us about the state of local journalism and what effect do you think it might have?
Hewlett: So, what I can tell you is that I had a very brief stint at the News & Record in the late 90s and I worked at the Winston-Salem Journal for 20 years before I left to join The Assembly. What I can tell you is that when I was at the News & Record and at the beginning of the time that I was at the Winston-Salem Journal, they had a robust staff, they had bureaus all over the state.
None of that is in existence today. The News & Record, by my last count, has about five reporters to cover a city of nearly 300,000. So, you have news organizations that have far fewer resources to possibly fight litigation like this and it raises questions as to when things like this happen and whether they can fight it.