SPJ Fort Worth chapter offering mid-career grant

The Fort Worth SPJ chapter has a mid-career grant of up to $500 available for journalists who want some type of mid-career training.
The award is open to newspeople with at last five years experience and must be used on journalism-related training.  You do not have to be currently employed by a news organization to be eligible – so freelancers and laid-off people would qualify.  You do have to be specific about the training you want to receive.  You could use this for courses, workshops, even attending a convention if that convention offered a specific strand of workshops, like investigative reporting or photojournalism.
The application form can be found at, which also offers more information on the grant.


Can I get a copy of the council packet at a city council meeting?

The short answer is yes, you should be able to get a copy of the council packet. Council packets are routinely handed out to reporters – just ask any of the big cities such as Fort Worth.

The long answer is that these documents are subject to the open records act like any other document. Therefore, if they are providing council members with copies of legal opinions or details of real estate transactions, they may be able to withhold those items. A request for a zoning change, however, would not fall under the real estate transaction – the types of real estate transactions exempted under the open records act are generally the sale or purchase of real estate. A request for a zoning change, and specifications of that request, would be public.

If the city is refusing to give you a copy of the council packet, make a formal written request for the documents. They will probably seek an attorney general's opinion. You may have to make requests every week until you get them accustomed to releasing these details to you. If you don't want them to charge you for copies, ask for access to read the packet. You would only have to pay for the pages you actually want.


What to do when your judge issues a gag order

The capital murder trial had been under way three and a half days when the gag order arrived, handed out after lunch by uniformed bailiffs to the media and other spectators seated in the courtroom.

Much of it was typical of what you’d find in a gag order issued during a tense trial:

  • No media interviews with the witnesses, attorneys, prosecutors or court personnel
  • No audio or visual recording equipment allowed in the courtroom
  • No photographing of jurors
  • No communication with any member of the jury
  • No computers in the courtroom without prior approval of the judge

But the gag order issued on Jan. 6 by Visiting Judge Elizabeth Berry in Tarrant County Criminal District Court #4 did not stop there.

Berry ordered that media interviews could only be done in the courthouse lobby or outside the building. And nothing, the order stated, should be disseminated by the media unless it had occured in open court, presented in evidence or in argument with the jury present.

In other words, the media was being told they couldn’t report anything that happened in court outside the jury’s presence.

There were to be no blogs about court rulings on evidence. No testimony given without the jury to help the judge determine whether something should be admitted into evidence. No reporting even on the dressing-down the judge had given prosecutors and defense attorneys for their ongoing sniping.

Violation of the order could result in automatic expulsion from the courtroom or contempt of court, which carries a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail.

I stepped outside and called my editors at the Star-Telegram. It was time to get the lawyers involved.



Gag orders are not uncommon in high-profile cases such as the recent capital murder case against Kwame Rockwell, accused of killing two men — including a Mrs. Baird’s deliveryman — during a 2010 convenience store robbery.

Death penalty cases get intense scrutiny during the appeals process, and trial publicity can adversely affect the justice system if the jury panel becomes aware of the hooplah.

Most defense lawyers and prosecutors avoid discussing an ongoing case anyway, and in this case, the family members of the victims had already indicated to the Star-Telegram that they didn’t want to talk until after the trial.

But this gag order crossed the line. By prohibiting reporters from reporting on actions that occurred in open court, but outside the jury’s presence, the court had initiated a censorship policy known as prior restraint — telling the media that it cannot print something that occurs in a public forum.

Prior restraint was at the heart of the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, when the Nixon administration tried to stop The New York Times and Washington Post from publishing portions of top-secret documents related to the Vietnam War.  

In a later case in Nebraska in 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a gag order that had imposed prior restraint on the media, saying such censorship was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.



So what should you do if you’re hit with such a gag order? Take the lead from Star-Telegram attorney Tom Williams of Fort Worth, a noted First Amendment lawyer.

  1. Try to reason with the judge. Williams arrived in court within a few hours of the order being issued to talk with the judge about the decision. The Star-Telegram agreed immediately not to approach witnesses or attorneys for comment, but asked for permission to ask questions about routine information, such as the spelling of a witness’ name or confirmation of a date.
  2. Be polite. Make the judge aware that you are not trying to interfere with the justice system, and that you are willing to cooperate fully with her efforts to protect witnesses and court officials.
  3. Don’t back down on the big stuff. Judge Berry agreed to soften the order somewhat but initially refused to back down on the prior restraint order. Williams then indicated he would like a hearing on that issue, and it was scheduled for the following Monday. Before the hearing could begin, however, Berry had issued a new order revising the prior restraint requirement.

The key point to remember is this: Open court is a public forum, and no one can control reporting of what happens in open court.