By Ian McCusker
The American Journalism Historians Association (AJHA) awarded Erin Coyle the 2015
Joseph McKerns Grant during their annual conference held October 8-10 in Oklahoma
City. The grant will help research surrounding a 1966 judicial order issued by Superior
court judges in Wake County, N.C that curtailed the First Amendment freedom of the
press in favor of a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
“This is looking at a period of time when editors were advocates for press freedom and recognized that they had to be advocates,” said assistant professor Coyle on the historical relevance of the case. “They were looking at some very realistic threats.”
The Wake County order carried out the Supreme Court’s 1966 ruling in Sheppard v. Maxwell that news coverage of a criminal investigation and judicial proceedings undermined the fair trial rights of a criminal defendant. The order said that law enforcement and court workers who provided information to the press could be held in contempt of court if that information had the potential to hinder the criminal defendant’s fair trial rights.
“A criminal suspect’s sixth amendment rights are very important,” said Coyle. “The editors recognized that but were seeking a way to balance.”
Newspaper editorials printed from 1966-67 criticizing the decision are among the documents Coyle plans to review. This will include papers held in the Southern Historical Collection gathered by Sam Ragan, then executive editor of the News & Observer and Raleigh Times. Interviews will also be a part of the research but many people associated with the case have died in the nearly 50 years since the controversy.
The Mass Communication 3080 class Coyle teaches on Media Law addresses the conflict between freedom of the press and a defendant’s fair trial rights. One unit discusses cameras in court, which were an issue in the Wake County case. The amount of equipment used by journalists in the courtroom made so much noise that the defendant had trouble communicating with his lawyers, making a confidential conversation with counsel difficult.
Journalists, on the other hand, faced problems communicating with police.
“Journalists and police really have to work together,” said Coyle. “Journalists were concerned that some police were seeing these judicial rulings as orders not to provide information to the press.”
In addition to the historical importance of the case, Coyle voiced the guide her research may provide to journalists moving forward.
“We hope this can provide some pointers for effective ways to advocate for press freedom that may still be effective.”