Judge’s gag order needs to go

Dylann Roofappears at a court hearing in Charleston, S.C.,in July. (Grace Beahm/The Post and Courier via AP, Pool)

Many people are convinced they know all they need to about the horrific killing of the Emanuel Nine. Certainly the news coverage of that terrible crime has been nearly comprehensive.

But the fact is the public has more to learn about the devastating event, and Ninth Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson has imposed a gag order that puts vital information off-limits.

Judge Nicholson on July 10 instituted a temporary gag order on public records related to the shootings, including 911 calls. He cited two reasons: to guard against compromising the privacy of the victims’ relatives and jeopardizing Dylann Roof’s right to a fair trial. Mr. Roof, who has been charged with murdering the church members, faces the death penalty.

Lawyers for the victims’ families, along with survivors of the shootings and the federal government, have asked that the gag order be extended.

People throughout Charleston, the state and, indeed, the nation share in the families’ grief. But they also share an interest in knowing how public institutions performed in the wake of the racially motivated shooting deaths of the nine people who had gathered at Emanuel AME Church for Bible study.

This week, lawyers for The Post and Courier and other news organizations asked the court to lift the gag order, citing guarantees of public access under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

If the FOIA is ignored in such a high-profile case as this one, it is troubling to think how often it might be ignored in future cases.

Besides, state law provides ways for ensuring a fair trial that don’t involve restricting public access to information. Officers of the court can question potential jurors to determine whether they are impartial and able to render a fair verdict. And the judge has ample opportunity to instruct them during a trial.

Every reminder of the hateful crime is surely painful to the victims’ families. Understanding that, The Post and Courier has not requested crime scene photos.

But it is important for the public to be able to review 911 calls to determine if they were handled effectively. Much can be learned from the response in such an intense event as this one.

The people of Charleston have tried to look the evil of June 17 in the eye and have resolved to use the stunning grace exhibited by the victims’ families as inspiration.

Judge Nicholson’s gag order distracts from the process and its significance to the healing of the entire community.