Court Quashes Bid to Curb Report on NJ Scandal

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Crediting a local newspaper’s “self-restraint,” a New Jersey appeals court refused Monday to let state officials interfere with its coverage of a 5-year-old who brought heroin to school.

The 7-page opinion signed by Judge Mitchel Ostrer quotes precedent that says “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

Because details about the case at issue are already publicly available, however, Ostrer declined to “address further the weighty constitutional implications” of prior restraint.

The case erupted in September 2016 when a kindergarten teacher found one of her 5-year-old students playing with a packet of heroin. It was one of 30 packets later found in the boy’s lunchbox.

A few weeks later, after the Trenton-based school found crack cocaine in his personal folder, child-protective services put the boy in foster care, and New Jersey officials brought child-endangerment charges against the boy’s father, Maurice Leonard, and the man’s girlfriend, Turia Justice.

Trentonian reporter Isaac Avilucea says he was approached at this time by the boy’s mother, Tashawn Ford, who was fighting Leonard for custody.

State officials tracked Avilucea out of the Mercer County Courthouse after an Oct. 26 custody hearing, carrying child-abuse documents about Leonard and Ford’s son.

Despite the reporter’s insistence that he was given the file, state officials won an injunction against Avilucea and his paper from reporting on the documents.

That prior restraint was in place for five months before Superior Court Judge Lawrence DeBello lifted the order on March 27.

Confirming that ruling Monday, Ostrer noted that the Trentonian had not published the child’s name or his health records, nor did it intend to, which made an injunction a moot issue.

“The publication of the child’s name is not imminent, and all other details that the Division seeks to suppress have already been released and cannot be recaptured,” the ruling states.

State officials have not decided whether they will appeal this ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court, where its chances of success look low. 

Ostrer noted in the opinion that the state has a “high hurdle” to prove its case in restraining the Trentonian from publishing further details on the case.

Bruce Rosen, who represents the reporter, called the latest ruling “a strong, seven-page statement against prior restraint that was virtually unequivocal in its tone.”

Back in February, Avilucea noted that he understood why Ford accused him of having stolen the records he says she had actually given over freely. “I mean, they had her kid,” he said, referring to the prosecutors.

Avilucea also denied claims that he fled the Mercer County Courthouse with security in hot pursuit.

“It was a public courthouse,” he told the court. “I was just there to do my job.”

Ford was present during the February hearing but did not testify.

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