How an Ohio judge’s ruling threatens journalists’ ability to cover the court system

From The Columbia Journalism Review An attorney has a civil case that’s about to go to trial. He contacts a friend of his, the editor of a local publication, to encourage coverage of the case. The attorney shares public court records and information about the court schedule. The case is newsworthy, and on the eve of trial the editor’s publication runs a story that outlines the claims of the attorney’s clients.

And for this … the attorney deserves to be sanctioned for frivolous conduct?

That’s how one Ohio judge sees it, although plenty of people, it should go without saying, disagree. An appeal is underway, and a coalition of civil liberties and media groups, including the Ohio Newspaper Association, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, has filed an amicus brief arguing that the judge used the wrong standard to impose the sanctions. The First Amendment Lawyers Association has filed a separate brief arguing that the sanctions were unconstitutional. And—full disclosure that I’m hardly a neutral commentator here—I’m the lead author of a third brief, for the ACLU of Ohio, arguing that the sanctions could restrict the rights of attorneys to communicate with the press.

Those arguments are now before the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals, which is reviewing the trial judge’s ruling. The case grows out of a lawsuit against the Chagrin Falls-based English Nanny & Governess School, which trains nannies and places them with clients. Attorney Peter Pattakos, of the Chandra Law Firm in Cleveland, initiated the suit on behalf of a former student and a former employee of the school. The student, a nanny in training, alleged that the school covered up a report she made about a client sexually abusing his own daughter. The employee alleged that she was fired because she refused to help discredit the student.

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