Wyoming Judge Blocks Newspapers From Publishing Stories About College President’s Trip

May 25, 2010 - 5:27 AM
The Wyoming Press Association issued a statement Monday denouncing the judge's order as a 'dangerous and unacceptable breach of the First Amendment.'
Cheyenne, Wyo. (AP) - In a rare move, a Wyoming judge has blocked two newspapers from publishing stories on an internal report about a college president's trip to Costa Rica, saying the report was improperly taken and that releasing details could prompt the federal government to cut college grant money.
 
District Judge Peter Arnold on Friday ordered the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper and a local biweekly paper, The Cheyenne Herald, not to disseminate information about the report for at least 10 days.
 
According to the Tribune Eagle, the report concerns a school-sponsored trip taken by Laramie County Community College President Darrel Hammon to Costa Rica in 2008. He served as a student chaperone on the trip.
 
Cheyenne lawyers Henry F. Bailey and Lance T. Harmon, representing the college, asked Arnold on Friday to block the newspapers from publishing information about the report.
 
The lawyers argued that the report was taken improperly by whoever gave it to newspapers, and that college stands to lose federal grant money if the report is released because it contains personal student information.
 
The college maintains that releasing the report would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It says it could lose federal funds if it violates provisions of the law requiring schools that receive federal funds to keep certain student records confidential.
 
The Tribune Eagle has asked Arnold to dissolve the order. Arnold's office said Monday the judge had no comment.
 
Tribune Eagle Executive Editor D. Reed Eckhardt and Bruce Moats, lawyer for the newspaper, both said Monday that it's extraordinary for a judge to prohibit the media from publishing material in advance. Eckhardt and Moats said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such "prior restraint" is unconstitutional in all but the most extreme cases, such as situations involving immediate threats to national security.
 
They noted the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which it ruled the Nixon Administration could not block The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study of the war in Vietnam.
 
"If we're going to argue that the Pentagon Papers should be allowed to be published, then I'm unclear how a document of this nature -- which basically is a report about a president's performance at a community college in Wyoming -- is even sensible," Eckhardt said.
 
Moats said a group of college employees called a "care team" wrote the report. He said such teams are created to look into student health issues.
 
An anonymous person dropped a copy of the report at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's office on Thursday, Eckhardt said. He said the college asked Arnold for a restraining order after the newspaper asked college officials for comment on the report.
 
The Cheyenne Herald states on its website that it had posted portions of the report online but took it down after Arnold entered his order. An attempt to reach Herald Publisher Dave Featherly was not immediately successful on Monday.
 
Hammon, the college president, on Monday referred questions to the college's lawyers. He declined to comment on whether the report was critical of his performance on the Costa Rica trip.
 
In their request for a restraining order against the newspapers, Bailey and Harmon argued that the community college report is unlike Pentagon Papers because the report doesn't "contain information of great public concern." Rather, they said, it "documents a portion of the life of a troubled young student."
 
The Wyoming Press Association issued a statement Monday denouncing Arnold's order as a "dangerous and unacceptable breach of the First Amendment." The Associated Press is an associate member of the association.
 
Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersberg, Fla, said most prior restraint cases involve claims by law enforcement that publishing a story would hurt an ongoing investigation. She said she was "blown away" to hear of Arnold's order in the Wyoming case.
 
"They are almost always vacated by an appeals court almost immediately," McBride said of such court orders. "Prior restraint is pretty well established as a no-no given our constitutional law."