The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force supports the efforts of an Indiana TV station to broadcast court-generated audio in a case involving a controversial sentence in the sexual battery conviction of a local physician.
WPTA-TV, Fort Wayne, legally obtained the recording through an open records request. However, when the judge presiding over the trial released the recording, he issued an order prohibiting the station from broadcasting the hearing, “subject to the contempt power of this Court.” The station is appealing the judge’s order.
“To us, this is a clear case of Constitutionally-prohibited prior restraint,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director, who spearheads the task force. “Since 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the pre-publication squelching of virtually all newsworthy material. In our view, this Indiana judge’s order runs counter to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press.”
The case in questions involves Dr. John Mathew, a prominent Fort Wayne doctor who pleaded guilty to two counts of felony sexual battery against a former employee. Judge Thomas Hakes sentenced Mathew to two years of house arrest, probation, and ordered him to register as a sex offender. The lack of jail time prompted protests from some members of the community who believe the sentence was not adequate.
WPTA obtained a three-hour audio recording, made by the court, of Mathew’s sentencing hearing, which included victim impact statements. In his order denying the station’s motion to reconsider his ban, Judge Hakes cited an Indiana judicial rule that governs the broadcast of court proceedings. The station argues that the judicial rule does not apply in this instance because the recording was made by the court in the normal course of producing an official record of the hearing, not by the news media.
“This case has generated considerable interest in Fort Wayne, given the fact the defendant is a prominent physician whose sentence generated significant attention in the community. WPTA not only has the right to broadcast the recording, in our view, but has an obligation to let the public hear what the judge and others said during the sentencing hearing that resulted in the doctor not receiving jail time,” Shelley said.
For decades, RTDNA has fought at the local, state and federal levels to get cameras and microphones into courtrooms. In December 2000, the association persuaded then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist to allow the same-day release of an audio recording of oral arguments in Bush v. Gore, which essentially decided the outcome of that year’s presidential election. It was the first time the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed one of its hearings to be broadcast.
Other groups are also supporting WPTA in its appeal, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Indiana Broadcasters Association. More information on the case can be found at TheIndianaLawyer.com.
RTDNA formed the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. People wishing to support RTDNA’s efforts may reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.