News Outlets Join Fight Against Gag Order in George Floyd Cases

Protesters gather at a memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis on June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — A nationwide coalition of news outlets has thrown its weight against a gag order in the cases of four former police officers charged in the death of George Floyd.

The coalition — which includes the companies behind national news outlets like NPR, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Associated Press, alongside local TV stations and newspapers and the University of Minnesota’s media law center — filed a motion Friday seeking the removal of Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill’s gag order in the cases against former Minneapolis officers Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng.

The news outlets argued that the gag order, put in place July 9 after Lane’s attorney spoke to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a motion to dismiss the case against his client, is too broad.

“George Floyd’s death catapulted Black Lives Matter into one of the largest movements in this country’s history and spurred important conversations on a number of topics that arguably ‘relate’ to these prosecutions,” attorney Leita Walker of the local firm Ballard Spahr wrote. “The order can be read to restrict the speech of a breathtaking number of people. Indeed, it arguably restricts the speech of every employee of the state of Minnesota and Hennepin County.”

The nine-page motion includes a lengthy list of officials and others who could find themselves silenced under the order, which prohibits “all parties, attorneys, their employees, agents or independent contractors working on their behalf” from speaking to the public or press about “any information, opinions, strategies, plans or potential evidence that relate” to the cases, including discovery and exhibits.

Walker argued this could include anyone from attorneys at the three firms whose partners are working pro bono on the case to employees of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which began a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department after Floyd’s death. Also on her list were Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison, Democratic Governor Tim Walz, Minneapolis Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo and Mayor Jacob Frey.

The attorney further argued that the order was too far-reaching in the topics it prevented discussion of.

“By prohibiting speech that merely ‘relates’ to these prosecutions, the order is vague and overbroad even as to case participants,” Walker wrote. “Given the international impact of George Floyd’s death, such language restricts a significant amount of legitimate speech.”

She added, “The order arguably prevents defendants and their attorneys from publicly discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, public safety, racial equality, and police reform, as all of these topics ‘relate’ to the death of George Floyd and the pending prosecutions, though none of them are central to determining the defendants’ culpability.”

Walker also addressed the expressed purpose of the order: to prevent publicity from impacting the cases’ jury pool. She argued preliminary examinations of jurors and instructions, or a change of venue, could be used.

Cahill referenced the possibility of a change of venue in a June 29 hearing. He warned of a gag order at that hearing as well.

In opposing the gag order, the media coalition has common cause with all four of the charged ex-officers, who filed objections against the order on Monday. Attorney Eric Nelson, representing Chauvin, argued that any gag order should apply exclusively to prosecutors, who he said “have enjoyed a lengthy, unrestricted media honeymoon.”

Attorneys for all four argued that the order was preventing them from providing a counternarrative to the condemnations of the officers made by public officials including Ellison, Walz, Arradondo and Frey.

Attorneys for Thao and Lane have also called for sanctions against Ellison for issuing a press release announcing the addition of three pro-bono attorneys to the team. Lane’s attorney, Earl Gray, called Tuesday for Ellison to be jailed.

A hearing to address all motions related to the gag order is scheduled for next Tuesday. Chauvin faces charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s May 25 death. Thao, Kueng and Lane have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter.

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