The Court of Appeals released a published opinion in People v Sledge, Docket Nos. 324680, 324681 (October 1, 2015), that vacated the Wayne County Circuit Court's gag order in two criminal cases against Sledge, the former Wayne County Chief Financial Officer, and Collins, the Assistant Wayne County Corporation Counsel, regarding the failure of the Wayne County Jail Project, a $300 million budgeted project to build a jail in Detroit, which shut down with only a quarter of the construction completed due to an overrun in costs of $100 million. The Detroit Free Press intervened in the case to oppose the Wayne County Circuit Court's sealing of the record and the gag order, which infringed on the Free Press's First Amendment rights.
Though this case contains a lot of interesting legal concepts, a particularly interesting aspect is the focus on the importance of First Amendment rights as they relate to the freedom of the press. Though the Detroit Free Press's standing to contest the gag order was not contested, the Court of Appeals nevertheless took the time to explain why the Free Press had standing in the case, perhaps because the Court of Appeals had initially denied the Free Press's application for leave to appeal the Circuit Court's upholding of the gag order on the basis that "[t]he gag order placed no direct restraint of any kind on the Free Press" and the "Free Press has not identified any willing speaker who feels restrained." Slip op at 4. The Court of Appeals explained that the Free Press had standing as both a news gatherer and a recipient of the banned speech.
The Court of Appeals' discussion of prior restraints on speech also emphasized that "the damage of a prior restraint is especially great when the prior restraint prevents the media from publishing news stories on current events." Slip op at 7. In finding that the gag order in this case was "incredibly overbroad and vague" and that the Circuit Court had not sufficiently justified the gag order to overcome the heavy presumption of unconstitutionality, the Court of Appeals held that the the Circuit Court did not weigh the interests of a fair trial against the media and the public's interests in access to information. The Court of Appeals noted that these public and media rights were especially important in this case because of the subject matter of the case: the failed Wayne County Jail Project and the millions of taxpayers' wasted dollars.
Labels: 324680, 324681, Court of Appeals, Detroit Free Press, first amendment, freedom of the press, gag order, newsgatherer, People, prior restraint, seal, Sledge, speech, standing, Wayne County Jail Project