Judge Expresses Anger Over Sun Sentinel Reporting, Defers A Ruling On Contempt

Aug 15, 2018

A Broward Circuit Judge was unsympathetic to the South Florida Sun Sentinel during a hearing Wednesday over the newspaper's decision to publish legally obtained information about the Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nicolas Cruz's educational record. 

Elizabeth Scherer, the judge overseeing the case of the Parkland school shooting, said that although the newspaper may have not broken the law, she found the decision to be an ethical violation. The reason: employees of the newspaper were present for the court's order barring the release of certain information in the document. 

The paper's attorney, Dana McElroy, said that previous court orders in regards to the release of records were directed towards government agencies, such as the school district, not the media. 

Scherer did not rule Wednesday on a Broward School District request to hold the newspaper and two reporters in contempt for publishing the information. She will make a decision at a later time. 

The report, released Aug. 3 by the school district, documented what officials knew about Cruz leading up to the Feb. 14 shooting, when he killed 17 people and wounded 17 others. 

The district had been directed by a July 26, 2018, court order to redact portions of the report, which disclosed private information about Cruz. Despite that order, the way the district posted the redacted report made it so that anyone could read the blacked-out text by copying and pasting. 

Scherer commented that the Sun Sentinel's manipulation of the records, which entailed copying and pasting the information from a PDF to a Word document, was no different than using a special light to see text under ink-covered statements from a paper copy.

She said that next time she'll cover the redacted information herself with a sharpie if needed. 

"If you [the Sun Sentinel] have created some jeopardy for the trial of Nicolas Cruz, then you'll have to live with that," Scherer said. 

The Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with 30 other media organizations, filed a voluntary court brief on Tuesday that sides with the Sun Sentinel. It urges the judge to deny the Broward School Board's petition to invoke contempt proceedings against the newspaper and its two reporters. 

Scherer also left the brief under advisement. 

The judge was disappointed that Sun Sentinel reporters Paula McMahon and Brittany Wallman, who are also petitioned by the school district to be held in contempt, were not at Wednesday's hearing. There was no court order for the reporters to be present.