First Amendment group wants judge to reconsider gag order

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council wants a judge to reconsider a gag order in the case of a North Scott Junior High School student charged with attempting to murder his teacher.

The order, issued Dec. 26 by Scott County Judge Patrick McElyea, blocks the media from identifying the 12-year-old suspect and any minors who may testify at trial. The boy is being tried as an adult.

The council and its director, Randy Evans, says the gag order is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment. According to court documents filed by the council, the judge “took the extraordinary and unconstitutional step of imposing a prior restraint by enjoining all news organizations from publishing the names of the criminal defendant in this felony case that is proceeding in adult court and any witness under age 18 who testifies in open court.”

At the hearing in December, lawyers for the Quad-City Times sought to keep the proceedings open to the public without restrictions.

“We made a news judgement to withhold the boy’s identity, even before the judge issued the gag order,” Times Executive Editor Matt Christensen said. “But on principle we agree with the council’s request and believe the media should be free to report on court dealings without prior restrictions from the government.”

Police say the student tried to fire the loaded .22 caliber pistol into his teacher’s face on Aug. 31, but the safety was on. The boy is charged with attempted murder, carrying weapons on school grounds and assault while displaying a dangerous weapon. The boy’s father has also been charged for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The council argues there is no compelling legal reason or need to withhold the boy’s name, and that the boy’s name already is public knowledge as his identity is “widely known in the community and by teachers, students, and neighbors.” The gag order cannot “achieve the secrecy and attendant identity confidentiality that it intended to impose,” the council states.

The boy has been held in Scott County’s juvenile jail since his arrest. His case was transferred to adult court last month under a state law that classifies him as a youthful offender.

If the boy is convicted as a youthful offender, he would remain in juvenile custody until he turns 18 years old. His case would then be reviewed, and a judge could determine if he should be imprisoned, released or serve another punishment.