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Judge gets it right the second time

Johnson City Press • Jan 18, 2019 at 7:30 AM

We’ll give Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice credit for admitting when she was wrong, but the chain of events that occurred Wednesday in her Washington County courtroom should give the public great concern.

In a triple murder motions hearing, Rice initially ordered Johnson City Press Senior Reporter Becky Campbell not to identify in print a potential jailhouse witness whose name had been discussed in open court. Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle had asked Rice to prevent news media from disclosing the man’s name, claiming it could endanger his safety.

Judge Rice even went as far as to threaten Campbell with a contempt of court charge if she disclosed the name.

The judge later reversed the order, saying she had reviewed case law and cited a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that once information was released in a public hearing, it was public record and media could not be ordered to omit it from any reports.

Obviously this matter never should have been in question. McCardle’s request was clearly an overstep. Our state’s criminal justice officials should know by now that a public hearing is just that — public.

Anyone can attend an open court hearing, not just reporters. Campbell was not the only private citizen in the room, and anyone could have disseminated the man’s name. In fact, newspaper reporters are members of the public with a lot of ink. We’re there because not everyone can be.

By attempting to suppress public information, McCardle was violating an essential contract of trust between the state and its citizens. By initially granting the request and threatening Campbell with contempt, the judge took that violation to an extreme.

Regardless of the state Supreme Court’s ruling, the state had no right to suppress. In case the court needs a reminder, the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We think that’s about as obvious as it gets. Yes, there are limits on those freedoms — libel in our case for example — but accurately reporting public information is not one of them.

We fully appreciate, as should the public, that Judge Rice took a moment to reflect, research and correct herself.

The 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office should take note.

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