Judge tosses newspaper lawsuit, rules school district didn’t violate First Amendment

By: - January 6, 2021 6:26 pm

Roundup School District Superintendent Chad Sealey in court to defend the district’s policy of restricting the number of people admitted to sporting events during COVID (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan.)

ROUNDUP – A Musselshell County Judge has ruled that Roundup Public Schools didn’t violate a media company’s First Amendment rights when it barred reporters and broadcasters from attending girls’ volleyball games.

Judge Randal I. Spaulding denied the Yellowstone County News a preliminary injunction, which would have forced the district to allow the media company owning a newspaper, radio station and website into the games. Spaulding also granted the district’s motion to dismiss the case.

The judge’s ruling, issued from the bench, helped clarify the lengths a school district can go to in the name of public health and safety during a pandemic. His ruling did not address the exemption the state has given to media as essential workers, but the case could have impact regarding who attends events in-person, even if it means restricting media.

The court case was framed by Yellowstone County News as a restriction of the paper’s First Amendment rights when reporters for the media company, including publisher and owner Jonathan McNiven, were not allowed to attend the games that Huntley Project or Shepherd played against Roundup. McNiven’s crew was told that since they did not have a ticket to the event, they could not attend, despite media from Roundup being allowed without a ticket. In court Wednesday, school district officials said they didn’t ever print tickets, just a had a list of permitted family members and guests..

However, Spaulding sided with the district’s attorneys, who pointed out that the Yellowstone County News, which also operates radio station KFHW, was not stopped from publication, from reporting on the event, and it could still broadcast games. He ruled that because those rights had not been violated, the case would be thrown out.

Robert L. Stephens, Jr., the attorney for Yellowstone County News, argued the district’s interference made it impossible for McNiven to do his job, and that Roundup was treating his client unfairly.

Kyle Moen and Jeffrey Weldon, attorneys for Roundup, pointed out in court briefs that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of the press doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to access any information.

“There is a compelling government interest in curbing COVID and that the policy enacted was reasonably and rationally related to that,” Spaulding said in court Wednesday.

During the court hearing, Roundup Schools Superintendent Chad Sealey was asked if there was any “feasible” way to accommodate Yellowstone County News. He said there may be a way to trade tickets among media in between the rival school district.

“If they want to go through their AD and those schools formally request tickets, typically we work with them,” Sealy said.

He was surprised it escalated to district court, saying that McNiven had appeared before the school district in October to discuss basketball coverage. When the board didn’t take any action on McNiven’s request to be admitted, Sealey told the court McNiven told the school district that he had no other choice than sue.

“They didn’t make a decision because basketball season was still several months off. They wanted to see if something would happen with COVID before that time,” Sealey said.

After court, McNiven said he was uncertain if the case will be appealed.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about moving forward and doing our job. This is about all the media having access. For us, it’s a matter of our audience thinking, ‘Who do I go to?’ If we are not at those games, what good is our media to our listeners or readers?”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.