Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story posted earlier.
OLIVIA, Minn. A district court judge took the unusual step of ordering a newspaper not to publish an account of testimony a reporter heard in open court about the alleged sexual abuse of a 4-year-old girl.
In issuing the temporary restraining order yesterday, Judge Randall Slieter said that data and records from active child-protection investigations must be kept confidential under Minnesota law. The order was set to expire Aug. 6.
"I can't tell you how rare it is for a judge to prevent the news media from publishing things," said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the West Central Tribune of Willmar. "This is a bombshell event in Minnesota jurisprudence."
Anfinson, who also represents several other media outlets in Minnesota, said the order violates the First Amendment and was the first such prior restraint order issued in 20 years.
The Tribune sent a reporter to monitor the hearing, which included the testimony of the Olivia police chief and a Renville County social worker. The order applies to all media outlets, though Tribune Editor Kelly Boldan said he believed his newspaper had the only reporter there.
The newspaper planned to appeal.
Boldan said the Tribune informed the court administrator on July 29 that a reporter would be covering the hearing. Yesterday, the reporter listened to the testimony and was then approached by Renville County Attorney David Torgelson, who asked if he was a journalist. After the reporter said yes, Torgelson asked the judge to issue the order.
Anfinson said Minnesota law would prevent social services departments from releasing investigative data to the public, but it wouldn't prevent the media from publishing testimony from a court hearing.
Torgelson said the testimony should remain confidential until the investigation is completed.
"The First Amendment to the Constitution and freedom of speech are very important, but preserving the privacy of data can sometimes override that," he said.
Child protection proceedings in Minnesota have been open to the public since July 2002. State law allows judges to close hearings and files for exceptional reasons, and, when they are closed, those who want them opened generally can seek a hearing.