TULSA, Okla. A gag order barring all parties in a civil lawsuit involving Oral Roberts University and its former president, Richard Roberts, from discussing the case outside the courtroom violates the First Amendment and should be lifted, a pleading before the Oklahoma Supreme Court states.
The petition was filed this week by Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson, who is representing two former ORU professors in a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the school.
“A gag order in a civil case is a rare thing,” Richardson said yesterday. “I would say it’s practically nonexistent.”
In granting the gag order last month, District Judge Rebecca Nightingale said two constitutional rights were in competition in the case: the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of speech.
She also expressed concern that the national attention the case has garnered could hamper either side’s ability to a fair jury trial in the future.
Richardson’s pleading alleges that Nightingale “violated the Oklahoma and U.S. constitutions by exceeding her jurisdiction,” and that his clients’ right to free speech has been denied in violation of the First Amendment.
John Tucker, an ORU attorney who successfully argued the need for the gag order, said the judge “carefully considered and balanced the competing public interests and reached her decision based on established principles.”
In court last month, Tucker said articles related to the ORU case posted on the Web site of the Tulsa World newspaper generated hundreds, maybe thousands, of reader comments on the site, while reader comments on the paper’s stories about the Oklahoma attorney general’s litigation against poultry companies generated zero.
The wrongful-termination lawsuit, filed Oct. 2 by three former ORU professors, alleges they were forced out after reporting the evangelical school’s involvement in a local political race and after they gave school regents a copy of a report documenting alleged moral and ethical problems of Roberts and his family.
Roberts stepped down as president in November amid accusations he misspent school funds to bankroll a lavish lifestyle. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Last month, attorneys for ORU and John Swails, one of the professors, reached a settlement after a session of court-ordered mediation talks, resulting in Swails’ reinstatement at the school. Other terms of the settlement are confidential.
Richardson is also representing a former ORU accountant in a lawsuit against the school.
Last week, the former accountant alleged that more than $1 billion annually was inappropriately funneled through the school.
Named as defendants were Richard Roberts and his wife, Lindsay, along with former regents.
University officials have dismissed those allegations.