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New Hampshire Superior Court order reverses prior restraint on descriptions of jurors

By Rose Cavanagh, executive director, New England First Amendment Coalition

This month saw another victory for the public’s right to know in New Hampshire, this time involving a successful challenge to an order restricting reporting on juror descriptions to only the juror’s “gender, approximate age, and general occupation.” Hillsborough County Superior Court North Judge Gillian Abramson ruled on a motion by the New Hampshire Union Leader seeking to loosen restrictions on juror descriptions in the attempted murder case of Myles Webster, 23. New Hampshire Union Leader, through counsel Gregory V. Sullivan, argued that the order would restrict reporting on the race of the jurors, a possibly important factor given that Webster, who is a minority, is accused of shooting a white police officer, and under Abramson’s original restrictions. Also, her restrictions would have prevented the reporting of jurors who doze off, appear distracted or make gestures or hand signals.

Sullivan argued that such a broad restrictive order is an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, citing 1994 Supreme Court case, CBS Inc. v. Davis: “Even where questions of allegedly urgent national security, or competing constitutional interests, are concerned, [the Supreme Court has] imposed this ‘most extraordinary remedy’ only where the evil that would result from the reportage is both great and certain and cannot be mitigated by less intrusive measures.” He also cited First Circuit case, In re Globe Newspaper Co. v. Edmund Hurley (1990) which held that “[k]nowledge of juror identities allows the public to verify the impartiality of key participants in the administration of justice, and thereby ensures fairness, the appearance of fairness and public confidence in that system.”

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