A coalition of 17 media organizations — representing many
of the major television networks and national and state newspapers
— has successfully opposed five separate efforts by
prosecutors and defense lawyers to block public access to
information in a Florida murder trial that has garnered
international and national headlines.
George Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder in the
February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American
teenager. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for his
gated Sanford, Fla., community, has pleaded not guilty and claims
Martin attacked him. Martin's family said that their son was
taking a shortcut home after buying a package of Skittles and an
iced tea at a nearby store. The family said Zimmerman was following
Martin because of his race.
At the beginning of the proceedings, the duty judge sealed the
entire file without first providing notice to the media. Lawyers
representing the media coalition immediately filed a motion
explaining why the file could not be sealed (even if notice had
been provided), and the judge to whom the case was assigned
unsealed the file without waiting for oral argument.
Once the court file was open, prosecutors and Zimmerman's
attorney joined together to ask the court to seal documents that
had been provided to Zimmerman under the discovery provisions of
Florida's Rules of Criminal Procedure. Under Florida's
Public Records Law, discovery in a criminal proceeding becomes a
public record once it is provided to the person arrested. The media
coalition filed a response to the request, and after reading the
parties' briefing and hearing oral argument, the judge denied
the request and ordered the state to provide the media with a wide
range of materials including Zimmerman's statements to law
enforcement, witness statements and results of a voice-stress
analysis performed on Zimmerman. Zimmerman's attorney asked the
judge to reconsider the ruling and, after additional briefing and
another hearing, the judge upheld the initial ruling.
A few weeks later, Zimmerman's attorney sent subpoenas to
third parties seeking information about Martin to suggest he was
the aggressor. Prosecutors asked the court to seal all subpoenas,
information produced in response to the subpoenas and any hearing
relating to subpoenas. After hearing oral argument on the media
coalition's opposition, the judge (at this point, the third
judge to whom the case was assigned) denied the request.
Next, with Zimmerman and his counsel increasingly speaking in
public about their view of the evidence, prosecutors asked the
court to enter a gag order prohibiting the parties from speaking
publicly about the case. After a two-hour oral argument by the
media coalition, the judge issued a written order denying the
Holland & Knight represents the media coalition in this
Though the First Amendment affords greater free speech protections for government employees relative to those in the private sector, the speakers do not have carte blanche to insult or deride whomever they see fit.