By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Prior restraint are words used to describe the actions of a judge or some other government official who tries to tell the press that it's forbidden to print or broadcast something. They're also fightin' words for people in the news biz in America, where we are pretty much free to publish what we want first and then pay the lawyers later.
So when Buzz received an order last week signed by District Judge Cheryl Lee Shannon that said we could not publish any identifiable image of any of Barbara Atkinson's children, our first reaction was, "Oh, yeah? Says who?" Our second was to begin looking for a photo of one of the kids to run with this week's column. Our third was to refresh our memory about who Barbara Atkinson is. Turns out she was sentenced to life in prison in January for child abuse. Police say she and her husband imprisoned Atkinson's 8-year-old daughter in a filthy closet and deprived her of food and water. The girl also was sexually abused. (Big story. We should have remembered it right away, but there are just too many similar gruesome stories out there to keep straight.)
The girl has five siblings, and the case before Shannon involves efforts by the state to terminate Atkinson and her husband's parental rights.
Call the stable and tell them to put away the high horse. We won't be climbing on it just yet. We wouldn't print a photo, even if we had one.
The judge's latest decision comes down especially hard on KDFW Fox 4, which Shannon wrote violated previous similar order and broadcast a picture of one of the kids. Fox 4 is not only barred from the court in this case, but no other media can share any tape or other images with the television station.
Now, as a general rule, the press--while insensitive in many, many ways--is most often careful about protecting kids involved in legal actions, especially when they are victims. Buzz had never seen an order like Shannon's before, which is what put our back up at first, and was curious about what KDFW planned to do about it.
No one at KDFW would return our calls. They may still be steamed about an unflattering profile this paper published last year about Fox 4 reporter Becky Oliver. So it's up to Buzz to come up with a good reason for KDFW's decision to violate common practice and decency. Our guess: They're buttheads.
We don't think we'd get much argument from Douglas Dunn on that one. He's the lawyer representing the interests of the children before Shannon. He's also the guy who sent us a certified letter containing a copy of her order. We asked him whether it might constitute improper prior restraint.
"It may very well fall into that arena, but that's not my concern," Dunn said, politely implying that maybe we have our priorities out of order.
He may be right. On the other hand, Dunn said all the other media covering the case were cooperative, so perhaps he should take care when he mails off court orders. Some media folk are cranky, irresponsible and spoiling for a fight. Not us, but some are.