TRENTON, N.J. (AP) A New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday that juvenile court hearings for seven high school students charged in a football hazing investigation will remain closed to the media.
The court agreed with a Family Court judge who said in denying public access that the goal of rehabilitating the juvenile defendants from the Sayreville War Memorial High School team ”would be thwarted” and ”community backlash” against them enhanced if the media had access to the hearings.
In upholding the judge’s decision, the appeals court also agreed that media access could lead to a backlash against the alleged victims, who are also juveniles.
On another point, however, the court said the media can name the defendants if the information is obtained from outside court proceedings.
The Associated Press, NJ Advance Media, Gannett New Jersey Newspapers and ABC Inc. appealed the Family Court decision after requesting access to the hearings as a First Amendment right. They also argued that allowing public access to the case would provide an outlet ”for community concern” in the highly charged case.
The AP does not generally name juvenile suspects and has not identified the suspects from Sayreville.
”We’re disappointed in terms of the access part, obviously,” said Thomas Cafferty, an attorney representing the media organizations. ”The issue of whether to publish identities we believe, as a result of the appellate decision, now rests where the First Amendment says it should rest, in the sound discretion of editors.”
Cafferty said the media organizations are reviewing the court decision.
The teenagers were charged in October: three with aggravated sexual assault, criminal restraint, hazing and other crimes for an act of sexual penetration upon a child; four with aggravated criminal sexual contact and other crimes. The school district canceled a scheduled game on Oct. 2 amid the prosecutor’s investigation, then canceled the rest of the season.
Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey, who opposed the media request, said in a statement that he agreed with Family Court Judge James Hyland’s decision and was pleased it withstood the appeal. Attorneys representing two of the teens also welcomed the decision, saying the issue has held up scheduling trial dates for their clients and a resolution of the case.
Steven Altman and Richard Klein said all seven students have been kept out of school since the charges were filed.
”A number of the young men are innocent. The only way we’re going to get it done with is to get a trial,” Altman said, adding that his client wants to get back to school.
Juvenile proceedings generally are closed to the public unless media outlets or others seek access. The media organizations say previous cases show state courts favor increased public access to juvenile proceedings unless the juvenile can provide evidence of a substantial likelihood of specific harm.
The school district announced this month that the team would return with a new head coach next school year. None of the coaches have been charged.
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