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Editorial: Gag orders only stop informed discussion |

Editorial: Gag orders only stop informed discussion


The death of Antwon Rose started lots of people talking.

The 17-year-old’s shooting at the hands of East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld sparked protest and political rhetoric, and ultimately a grand jury indictment of the policeman on charges of attempted homicide and aggravated assault.

That’s the kind of thing that grabs attention regardless of color or party or politics. It makes noise. It stands in the middle of the street and screams “Look over here!”

An Allegheny County judge thinks you can muzzle that.

When Court of Common Pleas Judge Alexander Bicket issued a gag order on Wednesday, with no hearing, he tried to hit the mute button on the very charged case.

There is certainly reason to think about preventing the attorneys and witnesses and others associated with the case from talking to the press. The tainting of the jury pool with information is a legitimate concern. But it’s also a concern in every case ever, and gag orders are not something that happens in every criminal proceeding.

Yes, a gag order can stop the defense and the prosecution from taking pot shots at each other for the months that a complicated legal case can linger. It can stop key information from being played out on the front page before it is presented in court.

What it can’t do is stop the conversation, and if Bicket thinks that will happen, he is wrong.

A black boy died, and his community has not forgotten that. A police officer has been charged, and people who are passionate about their support of the police will not forget either.

Pulling the plug on microphones just turns up the volume on the people who are talking, and the people left talking are doing so inside their own perspectives without the treble of facts and the bass of information.

Instead of having a jury pool that might have heard stories or read articles that cite the progress of the case as it unfolds, those Allegheny County residents will be hearing something else instead. Rumor, opinion, belief and position will fill the void.

A judge can stop a lawyer from talking to a reporter. He can’t stop a church member who knew a victim’s neighbor from talking to her friend. He can’t stop the cop’s buddies from talking over a beer. He can’t stop those conversations from mixing and echoing across the local landscape like a game of telephone.

The message might be muffled by a gag order, but it’s never truly muzzled. Pennsylvania’s notoriously leaky grand juries of recent years should be proof of that.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that the order was issued without open discussion. If there was a real reason to tie the truth to a chair and duct tape its mouth, that seems like it would be important to hear.

But we’ll never know. Nobody’s talking.

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