June 11, 2014
Media & Juvenile Court Proceedings

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In the late summer of 2012, Judge Tracie Hunter was the assigned judge presiding over twelve cases against six juvenile defendants accused of assaulting a man in the North College Hill area of Cincinnati.

On August 16, the Cincinnati Enquirer printed the names of five of the juveniles in a newspaper article. A few days later, the Enquirer ran a follow-up article in which it identified by name – and quoted – the mother of two of the juveniles.

After that, the attorney for two of the juveniles filed motions to exclude the media from all pretrial hearings and to prohibit photographing, filming, or taping of the juveniles while in the court. In the juvenile court system, juveniles have the right to ask that proceedings be closed to the media.

A hearing was convened on the motions, and attorneys for the state, the juveniles, and a number of media outlets attended. The parties agreed to resolve the pending motions to close the hearings to the media. However, the scope of the agreement is the subject of some dispute.

It’s clear that the media outlets promised not to film or photograph the juveniles’ faces or identifying characteristics – such as tattoos. But Judge Hunter’s position is that the Enquirer also agreed to refrain from publishing the defendants’ names, at least until after trial.

The Enquirer’s position is that it expressly reserved the right to continue publishing the names, based on the attorney’s statement that the names have been published and the paper intends “to continue to reference those, to the extent it’s appropriate.”

The Enquirer again printed the juveniles’ names on August 25 and 31, 2012. On September 17, Judge Hunter filed an entry in one of the juveniles’ cases granting the Enquirer’s application for permission to broadcast or photograph court proceedings, but subject to conditions: the juveniles could only be videotaped below the waist, the juveniles’ and parents’ names were barred from publication, and photographs of the parents were prohibited.

The Enquirer alleged that it was unaware of the order prohibiting publication of the names until March 11, 2013, when two of the juveniles agreed to enter pleas. Four days later, Judge Hunter revoked the Enquirer’s permission to broadcast, film, or photograph the proceedings.

Her order did not allege any violation of the agreement not to film or photograph the defendants, nor did it accuse the Enquirer of engaging in disruptive behavior that might warrant removal from the courtroom. The only justification offered was that the Enquirer printed the juveniles’ names and ages on March 12. Judge Hunter stated in her order that the Enquirer had thereby violated her order from the previous September.

Judge Hunter cited one of the rules of procedure, which states that, “upon the failure of any media representative to comply with the conditions prescribed by this rule ... the judge may revoke the permission to broadcast or photograph the trial ...”

The Enquirer alleged that on March 18, Jennifer Baker, an Enquirer reporter, was barred from entering Judge Hunter’s courtroom and forced to leave the floor where the hearings were taking place. Several days later, court staff again refused to allow Baker inside the courtroom during a hearing. That same day, Judge Hunter issued entries in the remaining cases revoking the Enquirer’s permission to photograph or film the proceedings.

The Enquirer eventually filed a complaint with the court of appeals seeking an order prohibiting Judge Hunter from barring the Enquirer from the proceedings. The court of appeals ultimately ordered Judge Hunter to stay the enforcement of her two orders revoking the Enquirer’s permission to broadcast, televise, photograph, or record courtroom proceedings and to allow Enquirer reporters into the courtroom.

In accordance with the court of appeals’ order, Judge Hunter reinstated the Enquirer’s permission to broadcast the proceedings, but subject to conditions. She maintained that the names of the defendants and their parents “are barred from publication or broadcast for all current and future proceedings ...”

The Enquirer immediately filed a motion for contempt, arguing that Judge Hunter violated the court of appeals’ order because that order compelled her to allow the Enquirer into the courtroom without conditions. The Enquirer asserted that Judge Hunter’s conditions were an unconstitutional prior restraint on its right to publish information.

At the contempt hearing, Judge Hunter argued that she wasn’t in contempt because she had complied with the court of appeals’ express mandate: she allowed the reporters into her courtroom. She maintained that the order did not compel her to rescind her ban on publishing names. And she contended that the Enquirer had breached its voluntary agreement to refrain from publishing the names until there was a verdict in the case.

The court of appeals disagreed, and granted the Enquirer’s contempt motion. After that, Judge Hunter filed an appeal with us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Among her arguments, Judge Hunter suggested that the court of appeals’ order was too uncertain in its terms to put her on notice that continuing the ban on publishing the names of the juveniles was improper. If a contempt charge is premised on a party’s failure to obey an order of the court, then the order must be clear and definite, unambiguous, and not subject to dual interpretations.

We concluded that Judge Hunter was given plain notice of what the court of appeals required her to do: she was to suspend her orders of March 15 and 25 which revoked the Enquirer’s privileges as punishment for printing the juveniles’ names. Publication of the names was the only reason the judge banned the Enquirer from her courtroom.  She never accused the paper of violating the restrictions on photographing or broadcasting the hearings.

And because the orders revoking the Enquirer’s access to the hearings were inextricably tied to the publication ban that the orders purported to enforce, by suspending one, the court of appeals necessarily suspended the other. Any other interpretation would render the order meaningless.

Therefore, by a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Hunter, 138 Ohio St.3d 51, 2013-Ohio-5614. Case No. 2013-1171. Decided December 20, 2013. Opinion Per Curiam.