BOISE, Idaho - The Idaho Supreme Court on Monday rejected a request by 30 news organizations to lift a gag order in the criminal case of a man accused of stabbing four University of Idaho students to death.
The high court did not weigh in on whether the gag order, which prohibits attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and others involved in the case from talking to the news media, violates the First Amendment rights of a free press. Instead, the unanimous Idaho Supreme Court justices said the news organizations should have brought their request to the magistrate judge who issued the gag order.
"This Court has long respected the media's role in our constitutional republic, and honored the promises in both the Idaho Constitution and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Justice Gregory Moeller wrote in the decision, going on to quote a ruling from a federal case that said responsible press coverage, "guards against the miscarriage of justice" by subjecting the court system and those who are a part of it to public scrutiny.
Still, Moeller wrote, the balancing act between the First Amendment protections afforded to the press and the Sixth Amendment fair trial rights promised to defendants has become increasingly difficult with the advent of the internet and social media.
Though those are "well-guarded rights," Moeller said, news organizations who wish to challenge gag orders should start at the lower courts and work their way up to the state's highest judicial bench, rather than approaching the Supreme Court first.
Bryan Kohberger, 28, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and burglary in connection with the stabbing deaths in Moscow, Idaho. Prosecutors have yet to reveal if they intend to seek the death penalty.
The bodies of Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were found on Nov. 13, 2022, at a rental home across the street from the University of Idaho campus. The slayings shocked the rural Idaho community and neighboring Pullman, Washington, where Kohberger was a graduate student studying criminology at Washington State University.
Ethan Chapin, 20, Xana Kernodle, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, along with the women's two other roommates in Kaylee Goncalves' final Instagram post, shared the day before the slayings. (@kayleegoncalves/Instagram)
The case garnered widespread publicity, and in January Latah County Magistrate Judge Megan Marshall issued the sweeping gag order, barring attorneys, law enforcement agencies and others associated with the case from talking or writing about it.
The coalition of news organizations, which includes The Associated Press, contends the gag order violates the right to free speech by prohibiting it from happening in the first place.
An attorney representing the family of one of the victims has also filed an opposition to the gag order in state court. Shannon Grey, who represents the Goncalves family, said in that challenge that the gag order is unduly broad and places an undue burden on the families. Marshall said a hearing on the matter would be held after the Idaho Supreme Court issues a ruling on the news organizations’ challenge.
Kohbergers’ attorneys, meanwhile, contend the gag order essentially requires the attorneys involved in the case to act ethically to ensure Kohberger gets a fair trial.
"This is not a case where the attorneys seek to use the rules as a weapon against one another. It is a case where a young man is on trial for his life," Logsdon wrote. "There was nothing inappropriate about the Magistrate Court reminding the attorneys involved of their ethical obligations."
High-publicity cases often present a conundrum for judges, who work to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Courts sometimes feel that controlling the flow of information around the case — by forbidding those involved from talking about it — is an effective way to limit publicity.
But gag orders can infringe on the First Amendment rights of the public and of the people involved in the case. News organizations that cover the courts serve a watchdog role, keeping the public informed about how the judicial branch operates. During the investigation into the University of Idaho students’ slayings, news organizations’ interviews with investigators and law enforcement officials often worked to quash misinformation spread online by people who styled themselves as sleuths on social media sites.
"While we are disappointed that the Court denied the petition, the media coalition now has a clear path under Idaho law to challenge the gag order and vindicate these important First Amendment rights," Wendy Olson, the attorney representing the news coalition, said.
The Idaho Supreme Court ruling means the news coalition could now go to the magistrate judge to ask her to reconsider the gag order. The coalition has not yet announced any next steps.