Home » Articles » Case » Gag Orders and Free Speech » Oklahoma Publishing Co. v. Oklahoma County District Court (1977)

Written by Joey Senat, last updated on December 1, 2023

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In Oklahoma Publishing Co. v. Oklahoma County District Court, 430 U.S. 308 (1977), the Supreme Court struck down an order prohibiting the press from publishing information obtained in a preliminary hearing open to the public and press. The Court found the order in violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.


Judge enjoined media from disseminating name of boy charged with murder

The case arose from a judge’s pretrial order enjoining the news media from further disseminating the name of an 11-year-old boy charged with murder, although his identity had been lawfully acquired in an open hearing. Reporters had learned the boy’s name when they attended his detention hearing in juvenile court. As the boy was escorted from the courthouse to a vehicle, a newspaper photographer took his picture. Local newspapers printed the boy’s name and photograph, and local television stations showed film footage of him and identified him. The judge then barred the news media from publishing or broadcasting the boy’s name and picture in connection with subsequent court proceedings.


Supreme Court said state could not prohibit dissemination of information obtained at public court proceedings

On appeal by The Daily Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Supreme Court “concluded that the restraint on the press was valid in the interest of the possible rehabilitation of the youthful offender and his subsequent integration into society.” However, the U.S. Supreme Court in a brief per curiam opinion unanimously held that under the First Amendment’s freedom of the press, the state court could not prohibit “the publication of widely disseminated information obtained at court proceedings which were in fact open to the public.”


The Oklahoma Supreme Court had relied on a state statute closing juvenile hearings unless specifically ordered by the judge to be conducted in public. There was no indication the judge in this instance had ordered the hearing open. However, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that regardless of whether the trial judge had “expressly made such an order,” the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel all knew reporters were in the courtroom but made no objection to their presence or to the photographs taken as the boy left the courthouse.


Court said previous gag order rulings were precedents for the decision

The U.S. Supreme Court said its decision was “compelled” by its rulings in Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn (1975) and Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976), which restricted gag orders against the reporting of information lawfully acquired in open court proceedings or in public court documents. In Cox Broadcasting, the Court held that a state could not sanction the accurate publication of a rape victim’s name that had been revealed in court records, and the ruling in Oklahoma Publishing “made clear that the press may not be prohibited from ‘truthfully publishing information released to the public in official court records.’ ”


The Court said that principle had been reaffirmed in Nebraska Press Association. What transpired in a public hearing could not be subject to a prior restraint, the Court had held.


Two years later in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. (1979), the Court extended similar protection to information lawfully obtained outside the courthouse through routine reporting techniques.


This article was originally published in 2009. Joey Senat, Ph.d., teaches mass communication law and multimedia journalism in Oklahoma State University’s School of Media & Strategic Communications. He is the author of Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma and Our Right to Know in Oklahoma. Dr. Senat received the 2007 Marian Opala First Amendment Award and the 2005 Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.


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