Judge who sought to dictate media coverage is overruled Bouknight hearing access hinged on obeying order

November 14, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a Baltimore judge did not have the right to dictate what the media published from sources outside the courtroom as a condition of access to a juvenile court hearing.

The case came before the state's highest court after a petition by The Sun, which in the past year has both won and been denied access to hearings in the case of a missing Baltimore boy and his mother, Jacqueline L. Bouknight.

Ms. Bouknight was released Oct. 31 after 7 1/2 years in jail for failing to disclose the boy's whereabouts.

Juvenile proceedings and court papers are confidential by state law and are to be opened to the public only at a judge's discretion.

Judge David B. Mitchell allowed the media to attend hearings in the case in January, then rescinded access after The Sun published a computer-enhanced image it had obtained of the boy, Maurice.

"A court cannot order the media to refrain from publishing material lawfully obtained from sources outside of the judicial proceeding as a condition of granting access to a juvenile proceeding," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote in a 24-page opinion.

State officials argued that Judge Mitchell's final order was constitutional, and that in any event the appeal had been made moot by Ms. Bouknight's release.

Assistant state Attorney General Andrew H. Baida, who argued the case, said the Court of Appeals ruling vindicated the basic notion that juvenile court judges can put restrictions on information obtained during hearings the media attend.

But James J. Doyle III, a lawyer for the newspaper, said, "I think it shows at least that juvenile courts are not totally First Amendment-free zones."

The Sun obtained the likeness of Maurice from the public information office of the city Police Department.

A caption published under the picture misidentified the boy as "Maurice Bouknight." In fact, the child does not share his mother's last name. The newspaper described the caption as an inadvertent mistake.

But Judge Mitchell wrote in a subsequent opinion that he considered the caption a willful attempt to get around the court's restrictions on identification.

He said that in order to stay in the courtroom, media representatives would have to agree not to publish any other likenesses, no matter where they were obtained, and that The Sun should publish a new court order, precisely as the judge had worded it. The newspaper declined.

The judge then restored access to other media organizations, provided they agreed not to publish any visual image of Maurice that had been made a court exhibit. But the judge continued to bar The Sun.

Judge Mitchell allowed all media, including the newspaper, to cover the next hearing in Maurice's case.

At that hearing, the judge ordered Ms. Bouknight released from tTC jail, saying that incarceration was not likely to coerce the mother to help any further in finding her son.

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