A coalition of local and national media companies is challenging a judge’s gag order that prohibits attorneys and several others from discussing the cases against four former police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd.
The group, which includes the Star Tribune; Minnesota Public Radio; the Associated Press; local TV stations WCCO, KMSP, KARE and KSTP; and the New York Times Co., among others, filed a motion Friday asking that the gag order be vacated.
“The Court’s Order in these cases threatens to prevent the press and the public from obtaining meaningful information related to these highly newsworthy prosecutions from a wide — and overly broad — range of interested parties,” said the motion by coalition attorneys Leita Walker and Emmy Parsons.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill issued the order last week, a day after some of the former officers’ attorneys spoke to the media about their cases.
“The court finds that continuing pretrial publicity in this case by the attorneys involved will increase the risk of tainting a potential jury pool and will impair all parties’ right to a fair trial,” Cahill wrote, adding that it covers “all parties, attorneys, their employees, agents or independent contractors working on their behalf.”
The matter quickly snowballed into accusations of constitutional violations by the judge and calls by defense attorneys to arrest and sanction Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution, for allegedly violating the order.
The coalition’s motion argued that the order overreached and violated the First Amendment. It could be interpreted to cover “thousands” of people, including every employee of the state and Hennepin County, the motion said.
“George Floyd’s death catapulted Black Lives Matter into one of the largest movements in this country’s history and spurred important conversations on a number of topics that arguably ‘relate’ to these prosecutions,” the motion said. “For that reason alone, the Order is overbroad. … The Order can be read to restrict the speech of a breathtaking number of people.”
Cahill did not list by name or occupation which “agents” or parties were covered in his order. A local legal scholar and a longtime defense attorney have said they believed it would apply to several city and state officials, including Gov. Tim Walz.
The coalition’s motion argued that the order could delay the government’s communication to the public about efforts to address public safety, racial equity and police reform.
“The Order thus threatens the right of the press and the public to engage in important dialogue with a wide range of people on a broad range of topics that could be viewed as ‘related’ to these prosecutions,” the motion said.
The coalition said state case law allows the court to impose gag orders “only when necessary to ensure a fair trial” but that they should be “narrowly tailored” and based on “an articulated, specific harm.”
The coalition will argue its case in court on Tuesday.
On Monday, the attorneys for all four former Minneapolis officers — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — filed separate motions asking that Cahill’s order be vacated.
Their motions argued that the order violated constitutional rights to due process, free speech and a fair trial, and that it unfairly penalized the defense after prosecutors and public officials had spent weeks criticizing the former officers’ actions.
Later Monday, Ellison issued a news release announcing that he had appointed four veteran attorneys as special assistant attorneys general on the Floyd case and listed their professional accomplishments.
Attorneys Earl Gray, who is representing Lane, and Robert Paule, who is representing Thao, filed separate motions Tuesday objecting to Ellison’s news release. Gray called for his arrest. Paule asked that he be sanctioned.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors said he knelt on Floyd’s neck on May 25 for nearly 8 minutes, but Kueng’s body-worn camera video, shown to the media and public Wednesday, indicated it lasted about 9 minutes and 30 seconds. Ellison’s office declined to address the time discrepancy, citing the gag order.
Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter.
Police were investigating allegations that Floyd had used a fake $20 bill at a local convenience store. They held him down as he lay handcuffed, stomach-down in the street. Floyd complained several times that he couldn’t breathe and warned them that he was going to die before he became unresponsive.
Bystanders also called for the officers to stop; one of them recorded and publicly shared video of the incident.