RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force applauds the Georgia Supreme Court for voiding a gag order imposed in the internationally infamous murder case of Ocilla, Georgia, high school teacher Tara Grinstead.
In a unanimous decision March 5, justices ruled unconstitutional a gag order imposed by the Irwin County, Georgia, judge presiding over the case, which prohibited “lawyers in a murder case, the defendant and the lawyers in a related case, court personnel, and current and retired law enforcement personnel from making extrajudicial, public statements on certain subjects related to the murder case for so long as it remains pending.”
In the court’s 25-page opinion, Justice Keith R. Blackwell wrote, “A gag order like this one may be constitutionally permissible in exceptional circumstances, but the record here does not reveal circumstances sufficiently exceptional to warrant such a restraint. For that reason, we vacate the gag order.”
The Supreme Court appeal was filed on behalf of TEGNA-owned WXIA-TV in Atlanta and WMAZ-TV in Macon, Georgia.
“We thank the Georgia Supreme Court for recognizing the public’s critical need to know what is occurring in the ongoing prosecutions in the Grinstead case, and for acknowledging that the rights of defendants and the public can be balanced to ensure both a fair judicial process and the free flow of information,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director.
RTDNA is the world’s largest professional association devoted exclusively to advocating on behalf of broadcast and digital journalists. More than two dozen of the broadcast and digital journalists who live and work in the state of Georgia are RTDNA members.
Grinstead disappeared mysteriously from her home in the small town of Ocilla in 2005. The case attracted the attention of local, national and international news organizations, resulting in wide coverage of the search for her.
Then, in 2017, a tip led authorities to conclude Grinstead had been murdered shortly after her death, and charged a former student at Grinstead’s high school, Ryan Duke, with her death. A former friend and classmate of Duke’s, Bo Dukes (no relation) was charged with a variety of crimes as an alleged accessory after the fact.
In March 2017, the Irwin County judge imposed an extreme gag order prohibiting virtually anyone with any knowledge of Grinstead, Duke, Dukes or the case itself from speaking publicly. A number of news organizations filed a motion asking the judge to ease the restrictions imposed by the gag order, and she did, in fact, modify it. Still, WXIA and WAMZ appealed to the state supreme court, resulting in its March 5, 2018 order lifting the gag order altogether.
In 2016 and 2017 the Grinstead case became the subject of the wildly popular weekly podcast “Up and Vanished,” which claims it has been listened to more than 150 million times. Many in Ocilla and surrounding communities credit the podcast with reinvigorating interest in the investigation and leading to the break that resulted in Duke’s and Dukes’ arrests and provided answers in a nearly 12-year mystery that had shaken much of southern Georgia.
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan 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. RTDNA is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats against press freedom in America. Reach out to RTDNA by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.