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Maine Judge's Gag Order Meets With Media Backlash

PORTLAND, Maine - The Portland Press Herald newspaper has defied a judge's order not to report witness testimony during a criminal court appearance involving a well-known Maine attorney.

The order has drawn national attention from First Amendment rights activists, who say it's a strike against the free speech rights of journalists to report what happens in open court.  

The case involves attorney Anthony Sineni III, of Standish, who was convicted of misdemeanor charges of assault and disorderly conduct Monday as part of a plea agreement. At Sineni's request, presiding Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz told reporters at the beginning of the hearing what they could and couldn't report.

A Press Herald reporter protested and asked for time to contact legal counsel, but Moskowitz denied the request. The newspaper has since defied the judge's gag order, reporting how Sineni's 34-year-old ex-girlfriend described their 11-year relationship and her claims of domestic abuse.

"Open court proceedings in this country are just that - they're open and we're not going to shirk our responsibility, which is to inform the citizens of Maine what's going on in the judicial system," says Portland Press Herald Managing Editor Steve Greenlee.

Greenlee says there's no question that that judge's order, in this case is unconstitutional. "It's kind of shocking that this kind of order would be issued involving testimony, particularly testimony in a case in which a lawyer was accused of domestic violence, or assault."

The newspaper's attorney, Sigmund Schutz, says while there are rare cases in which prior restraint can be imposed on journalists, the standard is well beyond the circumstances of this particular case. And he says the judge's media order violates the First Amendment, "and that our First Amendment was enacted to prevent government from doing the very thing that this order purported to do, which is preemptively prevent the press, the public, from speaking."

The judge's order, and the Press Herald's defiance of it, have garnered national attention. Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition, says it's critical that journalism organizations shine a light on these kinds of stories.

"I think it's always important for all media outlets to publicize cases like this, and not only call out the judges that make these orders, but also inform readers of the threats that exist to their access to information," Silverman says.

Silverman says one major test case that helped establish the "heavy presumption" against prior restraint was when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stop The New York Times from publishing classified documents - also known as the Pentagon Papers - that detailed American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the meantime, the Press Herald says that Judge Moscowitz re-opened the case, and called a hearing for 11 o'clock Wednesday morning at the Cumberland County Courthouse. The paper says it's not clear why Moskowitz scheduled the new hearing, or what it's about. And the newspaper says that Sineni’s case file remains under seal and is not available to the public.