Contempt accusation unfounded in Parkland school shooting case, newspaper says

By Rafael Olmeda Sun Sentinel (TNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The South Florida Sun Sentinel did not defy a court order last week when it published confidential information about Nikolas Cruz’s education record, lawyers for the news organization argued Friday.

But the Broward school district may have.

The school board has asked a judge to hold the Sun Sentinel and its reporters, Paula McMahon and Brittany Wallman, in contempt of court for publishing information that was supposed to be shielded from public view under public records laws.

The blacked-out portions were supposed to protect Cruz’s privacy rights, but they also contained crucial information about how the district handled his needs from 2002 through 2018.

That information included revelations that Cruz was stripped of the therapeutic services disabled students often receive in the year leading up to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and that officials did not act on his request to return to a special education campus.

The school district released the report electronically on its website last Friday with close to two-thirds blacked out.

The reporters learned that anyone could read the blacked-out portions by copying and pasting the report into a different file.

It was the school district, not the news organization, that failed to make sure the report was properly redacted, Sun Sentinel attorney Dana McElroy argued.

“In a rush to deflect from its own negligence in publicly disclosing the CEN report at issue in a wholly unsecured format,” McElroy wrote, “the School Board now seeks to have this Court find the Sun Sentinel in contempt for exercising their First Amendment rights to truthfully report on a matter of the highest public concern.”

McElroy argued the journalists obtained the full report legally and were not restricted from reporting on its contents.

The school district sent an email to the reporters and their editors Monday demanding the removal of articles and links to the information from and warning them not to publish further reporting on the contents.

McElroy’s response asks the court to find the school district in violation of the state’s Anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), which forbids public agencies from punishing people and organizations for exercising their free speech and free press rights by filing motions that have no legal merit.

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