United States District Judge Timothy L. Brooks last week denied the Huntsville School District’s motion seeking to prevent parties in a Title IX lawsuit involving allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Huntsville School District’s basketball team from commenting to the media or posting on social media about the case – essentially a gag order. 

The court also denied the district’s request to seal the case in its entirety but rather crafted a system in which it protected the public’s right to access judicial proceedings while balancing student privacy rights. 

A parent sued the district in September after her child suffered injuries during the 2020-21 basketball season after he was sexually abused by teammates multiple times on multiple occasions. The parent alleges that the district knew of the ongoing abuse but did nothing to prevent it, that the district failed to promptly investigate reports of sexual abuse by teammates and that the district’s actions have created a hostile learning environment, which denied her son the right to fair educational opportunities. 

The district does not deny players were alleged to have been sexually abused by teammates for two years but it denied having knowledge of the incidents and therefore being responsible for the abuse. 

In an earlier answer to the lawsuit, the district stated that any legal actions should be directed toward third parties – students who sexually abused their teammates – rather than the district. 

The Madison County Record, represented by attorneys John Tull and Noah P. Watson, intervened in the case to oppose the district’s request to seal the case and the gag order. 

The district stated it was seeking a gag order because the attorney representing the parent, Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, was attempting to try the case in the media and thereby taint a potential jury pool.  The district did not contend that the parent made inflammatory comments. 

However, the court found that McCutchen’s comments that children had been sexually assaulted in the school district multiple times were undisputed statements of fact. 

“The parties dispute the sufficiency of the School District’s response to the assaults, not whether they occurred,” Brooks wrote.

Brooks stated that he weighed the needs for student privacy against the public’s right to know. He ordered students’ names not be used in court proceedings or in documents in order to protect their identities and therefore their privacy. 

The judge noted that at this point in the proceedings, “there is insufficient cause to limit pretrial publicity.” 

The court noted that records should only be sealed when no reasonable alternative exists and to seal the proceedings and the documents in this case would be overly broad. Brooks also has allowed attorneys to redact parts of the record. 

If redaction isn’t possible, Brooks will allow attorneys to file documents under seal. 

Brooks wrote that the school’s argument to seal the record would carry more weight if the present litigations represented Huntsville’s first notice of the events. “But, as The Record explains, the allegations made in the lawsuit were widely reported for months prior to the suit’s filing.”

Brooks crafted an alternative that he ordered parties to adhere to. During the proceedings, the court will not permit the identification of the minor victims, alleged minor perpetrators or the parents of the students. The court ordered the parties to use an “identification key, accessible only to the attorneys and the Court, to mask the names of the students and the parents involved in these events.”

The court also denied the district’s motion to shudder live proceedings stating, “Much of this case can be heard publicly without identifying the minors involved, and, when specific individuals must be identified on the record, the identification key system will protect anonymity in open court,” Brooks wrote. 

The court noted, “There may come a point when identifying facts cannot be avoided and closure of an otherwise public proceedings therefore becomes necessary. The Court will make such a termination at that time, based on the facts to be presented at that proceeding and in consideration of reasonable alternatives,” Brooks wrote.