Limits on Media in Wyo. Murder Trial Tossed

     CHEYENNE, Wy. (CN) – The judge presiding over a Wyoming murder trial trampled the First Amendment in forbidding the press from publishing the names of juvenile witnesses, the state Supreme Court ruled.
     Judge Thomas Campbell with the Laramie County District Court issued the ban last week for the murder trial of Phillip Sam, which kicked off Tuesday.
     Sam was 16 years old in October 2014 when he allegedly opened fire on a group of teenagers near Martin Luther King Jr. Park, killing 19-year-old Tyler Burns and wounding several others.
     After observing that many of the witnesses set to testify against Sam were minors, Judge Campbell barred the media on Aug. 12 from releasing the names of any juvenile witnesses in the trial.
     Cheyenne Newspapers, which publishes the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, balked, and the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed Monday, one day before the opening arguments.
     “The district court’s order violates the Free Speech and Free Press Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, because this is not the sort of exceptional case where a prior restraint on speech survives constitutional scrutiny,” Chief Justice James Burke wrote for the court.
     Burke rejected the argument that concealing juvenile witnesses’ names would protect them against threats, which some had already received.
     “The perpetrators of the threats know their subjects, if not by name then at least by sight,” the six-page opinion states. “Thus, while at first blush the prior restraint may appear to protect the witnesses, closer scrutiny of the matter indicates the restraint will likely do little to protect the witnesses from the threatening individuals, who may be sitting in the open courtroom observing the testimony.”
     Burke also gently reminded readers that attempting to intimidate or influence witnesses is a crime.
     “The district court is free to give emphatic warnings to trial observers that it is illegal to attempt to influence or intimidate witnesses,” he wrote. “Further, the juvenile witnesses are free to resort to whatever protections law enforcement may be willing and able to provide.”
     The Eagle’s coverage of the trial Tuesday includes quotes from identified teenage witnesses.
     Neither the Laramie County Courthouse nor the Wyoming Tribune Eagle could be reached by press time.
     In its petition for high court review, Cheyenne Newspapers noted that “an order restricting the media from publication of witness names disclosed in open court would be an unconstitutional prior restraint.”
     “The media may not be prohibited from or punished for publicizing what it observes in the courtroom,” it said.
     The objection also cited Craig v. Harney, a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared “what transpires in the courtroom is public property.”

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