• U.S.

The Press: Editing from the Bench

2 minute read

From the bench of Georgia’s Fulton County superior court, Judge Durwood T. Pye keeps a hot eye on the Atlanta press. Last November, during a civil hearing, Judge Pye barred news photographers not only from the courthouse but from “adjacent sidewalks and streets” (TIME, Dec. 1). Last week Atlanta’s two associated papers, the Constitution and the Journal, faced a far stiffer rap from Pye: a $20,000 fine for contempt of court.

Judge Pye struck his blow in connection with the trial (for armed robbery) of a notorious Georgia felon named Harold James Meriwether. While the jury trial was in progress, both papers ran stories that dipped into Meriwether’s extensive criminal past. This long-accepted U.S. newspaper practice was unacceptable to Judge Pye. He called the stories to the attention of Defense Counsel Frank Hester: “Have you read these accounts?”

Hester: Yes. sir, and we have no objection to them.

Pye: Have no objection to them?

Hester: No, Your Honor.

Pye: No objection to the accounts?

Hester: No, sir, Your Honor.

But Lawyer Hester finally got the judge’s drift and moved for a mistrial on the grounds that the stories gave the jury information it should not have had. Judge Pye immediately ordered a mistrial.

Dusting off a 66-year-old Georgia Supreme Court opinion (“No newspaper has a right while a case is under investigation to comment upon its merits,” etc.), Judge Pye then held both Atlanta papers in contempt for “interfering with the business of the court.” Said the judge coldly: “The amount of the fine should take into consideration that the offenses were calculated, designed, deliberate and repeated. This corporation [i.e., the papers] takes the position that all that which it here did was its absolute right and privilege to do. It has no such right, and it must be taught to the contrary.”

The papers refused to learn Judge Pye’s lesson, prepared to carry their appeal, if necessary, all the way to the top.

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