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What is a Gag Order in Florida Criminal Cases?

While it is one of the more misunderstood amendments, just about everyone has some familiarity with the First Amendment.  The First Amendment covers a few general areas, but most people recognize it as giving people a right to free speech.  One area where it is commonly misunderstood is when speech has negative consequences in the private sector, i.e. a person loses a job or a company gets boycotted based on speech.  The First Amendment does not apply in these contexts.  Private companies and private citizens can punish people or take action based on someone else’s speech.  The First Amendment does apply to the government.  In other words, the government, or any subdivision, department or employee thereof, is restricted in actions it can take based on the speech of a person.  As a general matter, the police cannot arrest a person based on speech.  The government cannot generally make laws prohibiting speech.  Of course, there are exceptions.  Some speech is not protected.  Specific threats of violence or plans to commit crimes are not necessarily protected under the First Amendment, and the government can take action in certain of those situations.

Another area where the First Amendment may have limitations is in regard to criminal cases.  The police, the prosecutor, the other lawyers, the judge and other parties involved in a criminal trial do not have free reign to say anything publicly about a pending criminal case, particularly a criminal case that is in the news.  Like every other right, the First Amendment right to free speech can be limited if it conflicts with another Constitutional right.  In the case of a criminal trial, that conflicting right may be the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and an impartial jury.  If comments by the police or the prosecution might improperly persuade the jury, or a potential jury, the judge might issue what is called a gag order.  Of course, this goes both ways.  The defendant has a right to a fair trial and an impartial jury, but the defense attorney cannot make statements outside of court that might improperly persuade the potential jury towards his/her side either.

A gag order is an order from the judge preventing the attorneys and perhaps others involved in a case from making statements outside of court about the case.  A gag order will normally prevent the affected parties from talking about the facts of the case, the various theories, the legal issues, sentencing issues and other matters that might influence jurors.  Gag orders are rare because people generally have a right to talk about whatever they want.  But, if one side can show that statements from the other side are likely to impact the right to a fair trial, the judge may issue an order limiting statements.  If the judge does so, that order needs to be as specific and limited as possible so it is only designed to restrict statements and topics that are likely to affect a fair trial and influence a jury.