Judge Threatens Censorship After Newspaper Reveals Bureaucratic Errors in Parkland Lead-Up

"If I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print…then I'll do that," the judge said.


Taimy Alvarez/TNS/Newscom

The South Florida Sun Sentinel's reporting on sensitive information about Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was "shameful," a circuit court judge said yesterday.

Earlier this month, the Sun Sentinel obtained a confidential Broward County School Board report on Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which he used to attend, on February 14. As Reason's Robby Soave noted, the report showed that Cruz was entitled to special needs assistance while attending Stoneman Douglas, but the school never provided him with the help he needed.

The Sun Sentinel was not supposed to have access to much of Cruz's confidential information. In compliance with a court order, the school board redacted two-thirds of the report on his background. But the newspaper figured out that by copying and pasting the report into a separate file, it could read the blacked-out portions. The Sun Sentinel then published the report in full.

In response, the school board asked Judge Elizabeth Scherer of the 17th Judicial Circuit Court in Broward County to hold the newspaper in contempt. Yesterday, in addition to saying she would consider the request, Scherer blasted the Sun Sentinel's reporting as "shameful."

"You all manipulated that document so that it could be unredacted," Scherer said. "That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that. It's no different."

Scherer also threatened to exercise prior restraint on the newspaper, suggesting she can control what it does and does not publish. "From now on," she said, "if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print—and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie…then I'll do that."

The Sun Sentinel says it did nothing wrong. "In a rush to deflect from its own negligence in publicly disclosing the…report at issue in a wholly unsecured format," Sun Sentinel attorney Dana McElroy wrote last week, "the School Board now seeks to have this Court find the Sun Sentinel in contempt for exercising their First Amendment rights to truthfully report on a matter of the highest public concern."

The paper says it has received the support of dozens of news organizations:

A coalition of 30 media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS Broadcasting and CNN, came to the Sun Sentinel's side in a court brief filed Tuesday. They called on the judge to deny the School Board's motion to penalize the news organization and two of its reporters, Paula McMahon and Brittany Wallman.

According to Chuck Tobin, a lawyer for that coalition, it would be "flatly unconstitutional" for Scherer to follow through on her threat. "The order the court entered did not tell the journalists or the newspaper what they could or couldn't publish," Tobin said.

The Broward County School Board, meanwhile, has backtracked somewhat, telling the court yesterday it didn't actually want the Sun Sentinel to be held in contempt.