FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Florida newspaper urged a judge Friday to reject a school board’s effort to have it and two reporters held in contempt for publishing a story on the educational background of Parkland school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz.
The Broward County school board sought the contempt ruling after the South Florida Sun Sentinel published details last week of the Cruz report that were supposed to be blacked out to protect his privacy. The newspaper’s filing Friday contends it had every right to do the story because the redactions were done improperly and easily accessed.
“In a rush to deflect from its own negligence in publicly disclosing the (report) at issue in a wholly unsecured format, the school board now seeks to have this court find the Sun Sentinel in contempt for exercising their First Amendment rights to truthfully report on a matter of the highest public concern,” wrote newspaper attorney Dana McElroy in the filing. McElroy has also represented The Associated Press in some matters related to the Parkland shooting.
Cruz, 19, faces the death penalty if convicted of killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His lawyers have said he will plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence.
The full report, done by a consultant for the school board, revealed failings including that Cruz — who had long been given special needs services in the school system — was not accurately told of his options when he faced removal from Stoneman Douglas and that officials didn’t properly respond when he asked to return to a more therapeutic alternative school. The upshot was he got no services in the 14 months leading up to the shooting.
The redacted version included these violations in only a general way and concluded that the school board in most instances followed state and federal law for special needs students in Cruz’s case.
The school board contended in its contempt filing that the Sun Sentinel was well aware that two judges had ordered the redactions to protect Cruz’s privacy but opted to publish the complete report anyway. In its response, the newspaper argues it was the school board that may have violated the judicial orders by posting the report with sloppy redactions.
“By posting an improperly redacted version of the (report) to its website for public download, the school district itself may have failed to comply with the court’s orders,” McElroy wrote.
The Sun Sentinel reported that a reader called with a tip saying that if the redacted report was cut and pasted into a new Microsoft Word file the redactions would disappear, which is what the reporters did. Editor-in-chief Julie Anderson said the decision was made that the full report had to be disclosed to the public.
McElroy suggested the school board might be in violation of a Florida law that prohibits filing of legal actions with little merit that are intended to punish news organizations and individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights.
There have been no rulings in the case and no hearings set as of Friday afternoon.
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