Both The Madison County Record and a local parent suing the Huntsville School District in U.S. District Court for Title IX violations have filed their responses to a request for a pre-trial publicity gag order in the case.

The case involves a lawsuit by a parent with a child in the Huntsville School District who sued the district alleging her child was a victim of sexual assault, that the school district knew of sexual assaults taking place but did nothing to halt or prevent the assaults. Last month, the district filed a motion seeking to seal the entire case and an order limiting pre-trial publicity, essentially a gag order. The district asked the court to prohibit attorneys and those involved in the case from speaking to the media and from speaking about the case on social media.

The school district has been embroiled in Title IX investigations in which boy basketball players allegedly sexually assaulted teammates by “baptizing” them, a term given to the assaults by players. “Baptizing” occurred when players would undress and place their bare genitals in or on teammates faces, while other teammates physically restrained those being assaulted.

After the district sought to limit publicity, John Tull and Noah Watson, attorneys for The Record, asked the court to allow The Record to intervene in the case for the sole purpose of arguing against the motion to seal and the motion for a gag order. The Record is not arguing the facts of the case. The Record’s motion to intervene was granted earlier this month.

Huntsville School District attorneys, Steve Zega and Matt Fryar, had argued that a sealed case and limits on pre-trial publicity were necessary to protect the victims as well as the other children involved. But The Record sought to intervene for the limited purpose to protect the public’s right to know of the proceedings in the case.

In its motions asking for a gag order, the school district argued that Joey McCutchen, attorney for the parent suing the district, was attempting to try the case in the media. The school district stated that McCutchen was trying to impugn its character in the press by painting it as lawless in violating the Freedom of Information Act and for having turned a blind eye to serial sexual assaults on minors. 

The district has admitted in another lawsuit pending against it in state court to violating the open-meetings laws in several instances. 

However, McCutchen responded in a brief to the court that the district is simply seeking to limit publicity as a guise of trying to prevent jurors from being tainted but in reality, its own actions are nothing “more than trying to hide prior misconduct by the district and its administrators from public exposures, rather than protecting its students.”

McCutchen noted that the district has sent a Title IX report to victims of the sexual assaults without properly protecting the students’ identities. In addition, school board members were provided names of all the victims and the accused. McCutchen also stated Title IX District Coordinator Tonja McCone had freely provided student identities to both victims and the media. And, finally, McCutchen stated that in a second Title IX report, the district had failed to properly redact student names before sending it to parents of students involved.

Essentially, McCutchen argued that the district has already made the documents public and they are a matter of public record. 

In its response asking the court to deny the gag order, The Record cited a Robert Kennedy quote referencing the power of free press and noted that the newspaper has a responsibility to the community.

The Record has consistently covered the underlying allegations in this case, so that the community can be kept apprised of the facts and the actions of elected leaders and school administrators. Thus, this Court should deny the District’s motions to seal proceedings and limit pretrial publicity,” The Record’s response reads.

The Record’s response has two basic arguments:

• The newspaper has a common-law right of access proceedings and the public statements of case participants, and

• The district cannot show that the case participants should be barred from making pre-trial statements.

The first argument can be summarized with the statement that the public has a common-law right to all judicial records, although there are some limitations. In addition, the court proceedings deal with government operations as the Huntsville School District is a public school.

“It is beyond question that the citizens of Huntsville and Madison County have a “legitimate interest” in this case, which concerns alleged Title IX violations by District officials,” the response reads.

It was also noted that in a small community, it is not logical to assume that most of the community does not have the information the district is trying to squash. Also, the parents involved are not seeking to have pre-trial publicity stopped.

“The students’ parents are not as concerned about anonymity as the District believes they are. For example, the parents of the students who were sexually assaulted and harassed brought the Title IX reports they received from the school to The Record,” the response reads.

The second argument is essentially that a gag order should only be issued when the court’s ability to remain objective is compromised by said publicity. Also, any such motion should be narrow in scope. The Record’s response argues that neither qualification applies in this situation.

Essentially, the argument is that the district has already made the documents public and they are a matter of public record.